I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
The whole House will understand that it would perhaps be an error of judgment not to mention in the opening stages of this debate our good friend and colleague Tony Banks, a man who always had something pertinent, and frequently something impertinent, to say about animal welfare issues. Certainly, we all owe him a debt of gratitude in highlighting those issues.
This Bill is the most significant and comprehensive proposal for animal welfare legislation for nearly a century and it fulfils a commitment that we made in our last manifesto. It promotes a positive duty to ensure the welfare of animals, and brings the law on pets up to date with the law on farmed livestock. It increases the penalties available for the most serious offences while closing an existing loophole, and brings together and simplifies more than 20 pieces of legislation.
The Bill is the result of some four years' work by my Department, beginning with a public consultation in 2002. The subsequent draft Bill was given pre-legislative scrutiny in 2004 by the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, to whose work I pay tribute. The Committee heard representations from many parties, including the Welsh Assembly, and worked intensively to produce its report. The Government have listened carefully to its recommendations and have made a number of important changes as a result. The Bill that we are discussing today is undoubtedly better as a result of that work, and I am also grateful for the follow-up work done by the Committee since the Bill's First Reading in October.
It is also right to acknowledge the substantial contributions made by members of the public, who responded in large numbers to the consultation and to campaigns run subsequently by non-governmental organisations and others in favour of the Bill, and by stakeholders from across society. Since the end of the formal consultation, my Department has had exhaustive discussions with many interested parties to refine policy and to try to improve further the Bill's drafting. The overwhelming reaction from all those channels—the Select Committee, the public and stakeholders—has been positive, and the Bill has had a very warm welcome.
Before I turn to the principal provisions of the Bill, let me comment briefly on the background to it. The linchpin of our current legislative framework is the Protection of Animals Act 1911, which, as the House will appreciate, is nearly 100 years old. In its time, the 1911 Act was a landmark Bill that set out specific prohibitions against human cruelty to animals and proved remarkably enduring—for more than 50 years, Parliament dealt only with relatively minor amending Acts and supplementary provisions. In the 1960s, however, concerns about new farming methods and a better understanding of good husbandry practices led Parliament to pass the Agriculture (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1968. That Act was a further landmark. For the first time, the law moved beyond simply regulating cruelty and created a positive regulation-making power to promote the welfare of animals. That power, however, was limited to the welfare of farm livestock. Since then, Parliament has passed major laws on animal health and scientific procedures, but the 1911 Act, supplemented by the 1968 Act and some 20 others, remains the platform for animal protection legislation.
After 90 years of evolution, it is clear that our existing law is excessively complex and inaccessible, written in the language of an earlier age, and—more important—unnecessarily inconsistent in the standards that it sets. In particular, it has failed to keep up with scientific advances. Since the 1960s, research into the behaviour and physiology of individual species has greatly improved our understanding of the sheer complexity of animal welfare. The pace of scientific progress is expected to quicken in the years ahead, requiring flexibility in both policy-making and legislation.
In respect of livestock, the power to make regulations under the 1968 Act allows the Government to respond to scientific developments and evolving welfare standards set by, for instance, the European Union. In respect of pets, however, the inflexibility of the 1911 Act requires the Government—or, indeed, Members—to present amending Bills to effect change. Given the competing priorities for parliamentary time, that asymmetry means that protection for pets is lagging behind protection for farmed animals. The Bill creates a more flexible statutory framework. It sets out key principles, but leaves detailed matters to secondary legislation. The Government believe that that flexibility is critical if our legislation is to keep pace with the expected advances in animal welfare.
We all accept the necessity for the flexibility in legislation to which the Secretary of State has rightly referred, but will she give an undertaking that if she introduces that regulation-making provision, she will first engage in the careful process of consultation, thought and discussion in which she engaged before introducing the Bill?
I certainly give that undertaking, and will give it more explicitly later in my speech. I appreciate that there is always a balance to be struck. I think that, especially given the example of farmed animals, the whole House will recognise the benefits of enabling legislation that provides more flexibility; but of course there must be a proper safeguard.
May I take up what was said by my hon. Friend Mr. Gray? Many riding schools and livery yards are important centres of local employment in rural areas. Can the Secretary of State assure the House, and small businesses, that there will be enough time for consultation? All too often, measures such as this are rushed through. I understood the Secretary of State's response to my hon. Friend's point about the detail, but the timing is also crucial.
The hon. Gentleman has made an important point, and I am happy to give him that assurance. We are very conscious of the impact that regulatory change can have on organisations. He rightly mentioned the horse, livery and stable industry, which is worth—I think my hon. Friend Jim Knight, the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, knows the amount.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on presenting a landmark Bill, the first for 100 years or more—since the time of the last Liberal Government.
My right hon. Friend spoke of the importance of reflecting scientific advance in legislation. Scientific advance has certainly shown that cephalopods have complex brains and sense organs rivalling those of vertebrates. Will she reassure us that as the science develops, the legislation will be flexible enough to allow those categories of organism to be incorporated in the definition of "animal" if the scientific evidence is proved correct in a way that satisfies the Government of the day? Such matters are important. We do not want to have to wait a further century for the next Liberal Government before the legislation is updated.
My hon. Friend is entirely right and I am very conscious of the fact that this issue was raised during the Select Committee's discussions, to which he was doubtless party. This is a classic example of why we want such flexibility in the Bill. The Government take the view—perhaps to his regret—that the scientific evidence on this issue is currently insufficiently strong. But should stronger evidence become available, it is important that we can act, which is part of the reason for approaching the legislation in this way.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for her generosity and I, too, salute the Bill. In setting the scene, can she briefly explain why, pursuant to clause 61 and the question of the Bill's extent, all of it applies to England and Wales but only small parts of it to Scotland and Northern Ireland? Will equivalent measures be included in legislation covering those two jurisdictions?
Obviously, the existence of devolution means that a slightly different approach is taken on one or two of these issues, but it is our understanding that there is common ground with the devolved Administrations on the approach that they intend to take. The different ways in which procedures are followed in the various jurisdictions have given rise to the nuances that my hon. Friend has identified.
The Bill applies to all animals under the control of human beings except those used in scientific procedures, which will continue to be subject to the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986. For the purposes of the Bill, the definition of "animal" is restricted to non-human vertebrates, but there is a power to extend this definition to cover invertebrates, should sufficient scientific evidence emerge to demonstrate that they are capable of feeling pain. The classic example, which was mentioned by my hon. Friend David Taylor a moment ago, is cephalopods—animals such as octopus and squid—which could be included if the scientific evidence becomes available to show that they do indeed experience pain. He may know that there is an ongoing European Union review of this matter, as part of a review of the protection given to animals in scientific research. We anticipate that further evidence will be available, and that an assessment will be made, in the near future.
Fish, as vertebrates, are protected by the Bill, which is important not only for the millions of fish kept in ornamental ponds and tanks, but for those farmed under regulated conditions. However, further to the concerns discussed by the Select Committee and to our 2005 rural manifesto commitment on fishing, clause 53 exempts the activity of fishing from cruelty and welfare offences. Anything done by anglers and fishermen in the normal course of fishing is outside the scope of the Bill. Similarly—and again in line with our rural manifesto—the Bill will not affect the traditional sport of shooting. Animals shot in the wild, such as pheasants, do not fall within the definition of "protected animal"; nor, when free to roam, do they have a relationship with human beings such that a person could be held responsible for a specific bird. At the time of shooting, these animals are outside the Bill's scope, but it will cover similar animals during any period spent in captivity before their release into the wild.
Has my right hon. Friend seen evidence from Animal Aid, for example, of what appear to be very cruel practices in the rearing of birds for game shooting? They certainly lack the protection given to battery hens, for instance, and there is a strong feeling among many animal charities that something has to be done to give them at least the protection enjoyed by other birds.
We are very aware of the concerns to which my hon. Friend draws attention. We take them very seriously and we are studying this issue to see whether there are steps that we should take.
Is the Secretary of State satisfied that the Bill clearly defines the point at which the status of birds being reared for game shooting changes, and is she satisfied that there is a clear understanding of the issues related to game rearing, such as the use of cages in certain circumstances? Given that the British Association for Shooting and Conservation and other organisations share her concern about the issues raised by Paul Flynn, can she assure us that there will be an opportunity to create an accord, using a code of conduct, that satisfies everybody?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, and BASC has been extremely helpful. That is exactly the sort of issue that we are considering. I believe that the Bill contains a sufficiently clear definition of the time periods involved, but I have no doubt that that can be explored in Committee. The Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend Mr. Bradshaw, is much concerned about the issue, and I know that he will be willing to listen to representations.
The Bill carries over from the Protection of Animals Act 1911 the cruelty offence of causing unnecessary suffering to an animal under the control of humans. In so doing, it retains the substance of the provisions, but simplifies and updates them. For the first time, the Bill imposes a specific statutory ban on mutilations. It then provides for exemptions in secondary legislation to that general ban, so as to permit procedures that are considered necessary for the overall welfare or good management of an animal, such as neutering or ear clipping. The ban and the exemptions will be brought into force together.
A number of my constituents have expressed to me the view that to take away a dog's tail is to mutilate that animal, as that is like taking away its smile. That view was impressed on me particularly by the owner of a Great Dane-mastiff cross, which I was summoned to see. Many people feel strongly about the matter and I urge my right hon. Friend to consider it again.
I am very conscious indeed that the docking of dogs' tails is a controversial practice. At present, the law permits veterinary surgeons to undertake the operation, and the Government are inclined to support the status quo. However, we appreciate that there are genuine and strongly held views on both sides of the argument. It is our hope and intention that Parliament will decide the issue, and that hon. Members will have the opportunity to express their views during the passage of the Bill.
I think that hon. Members of all parties very much welcome what the Secretary of State is saying, but I seek clarification about the question of mutilation and neutering. She will know that charities such as the Cats Protection League carry out extensive neutering programmes across the UK in an attempt to control the cat population in a humane way. The Bill does not make the matter clear, but am I right to believe that such operations will still be permitted in the future?
Absolutely, and I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising the issue and allowing me to give that reassurance to people who might feel unnecessary alarm.
I very much welcome this Bill, which is long overdue. However, I wish to return to the question of the docking of dogs' tails. Will the Secretary of State ensure that the House will have the opportunity to debate this very controversial issue in detail, as well as the use of collars that give dogs electric shocks? We need to put an end to such barbaric practices.
I can certainly assure the hon. Gentleman that I fully anticipate that the matter will be aired extensively in Committee. As a result, it may be that a general common ground will emerge as a result. If not, the normal course of scrutiny of the Bill will give the House an opportunity to express its view.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend and her team for bringing forward this Bill, which is welcomed by hon. Members of all parties, and by animal lovers throughout the country. Does she agree that it would be appropriate for all parties to allow a free vote on the issue of the docking of dogs' tails, so that the will of Parliament can be made clear?
Obviously, that will be a matter for the parliamentary authorities as the Bill goes through the House. However, I doubt that any group will take the view that the issue has a party-political edge, given the genuine and strongly held views on both sides of the argument. No doubt those views will become clear as the Bill is discussed.
I will, but probably for the last time, as otherwise I shall be at the Dispatch Box forever and no one else will get a chance to speak.
I thank the Secretary of State and hope that she will forgive me for mentioning tail-docking for a final time. Does she think that it might benefit the debate to distinguish between the docking of tails for cosmetic effect and the use of docking for working dogs?
The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point, which goes to the heart of many of the concerns that have been aired. I have no doubt that that issue will be considered in depth during the Bill's passage.
The new provisions on welfare in clauses 8 to 10 are at the heart of the legislation. The House will be aware of, and regret, the fact that between 750 and 1,000 people are prosecuted every year for causing unnecessary suffering to captive or domestic animals. However, there are cases where, although animals are perhaps not yet suffering, their welfare needs are not being met. Action in such circumstances can currently be taken only against owners of farm livestock. For other captive and domestic animals, the owner can only be invited to take action. The Bill addresses that anomaly by laying a general duty on a person to ensure that the needs of an animal for which he or she is responsible are met, to the extent required by good practice. To comply with that duty, owners and keepers will need to understand their responsibilities and take all reasonable steps to provide for the needs of their animals.
There are already many sources of information available to help owners and keepers understand how to look after their animals. The Government will try to help further by producing codes of practice under clause 12, similar to those already widely used for farm animals. In line with undertakings I gave earlier, all such codes will be subject to public consultation and appropriate parliamentary scrutiny.
It is a principle of the Bill that responsibility for animals must lie with adults. For that reason, the Bill makes it clear that parents or guardians are responsible in law for the treatment of their children's animals. The Bill also raises the minimum age at which children can buy pets from 12 to 16 years. Consistent with that approach, clause 9 prevents anyone from giving an animal as a prize to a child under 16 years, unless the child is accompanied by an adult. These provisions will not prevent children from keeping or looking after pets, or from actively learning about the husbandry of animals. Indeed, responsible care and stewardship of animals can be an important aspect of the education of children, but the Bill will ensure that a responsible adult makes the decision about the keeping of a pet.
Under clause 10, we have provided powers to make regulations to promote the welfare of animals. These powers will enable us to flesh out, where necessary, the general duty contained in clause 8. Again, they mirror and extend existing provisions for farm livestock. The Bill also gives powers to make licensing or registration schemes.
I wish to make a point that was made to me by a highly respected member of my constituency, who is the driving force behind a local animal welfare sanctuary. He said:
"It appears that the Government has released yet another unworkable piece of legislation that will undoubtedly have an adverse effect on animal keeping. All that appears to have come out of this new Animal Welfare Bill is seeing more power given to the RSPCA and more legislation and costs that cannot be absorbed into already stretched budgets by sanctuaries."
Those are not my words, but I thought it right to bring those views to the attention of the House.
Well, the Bill does not give greater powers to the RSPCA. The issue will, I am sure, arise in Committee, but it is our view that no responsible animal sanctuary will have any difficulty meeting the provisions in the Bill.
Does my right hon. Friend acknowledge that because of the increased duty of care that the Bill introduces, animal sanctuaries are likely to be needed far more in the future? As such, does she agree that we should bring forward the licensing of animal sanctuaries to offer that protection to animals? I was a co-sponsor of the private Member's Bill introduced a couple of years ago by my hon. Friend Mr. Cawsey on animal sanctuaries, and I hope that my right hon. Friend will follow up the main suggestions it contained.
My hon. Friend also makes an important point. I can assure her that we are prepared to look at the issue with some sympathy and I take her point that the Bill may result in a greater need for animal sanctuaries in the future.The powers for licensing and registration will replace a range of statutes regulating such activities as performing animals, pet shops, riding schools and dog-breeding and animal-boarding establishments. Through secondary legislation, we will regulate activities such as animal sanctuaries, pet fairs, livery yards and the welfare of racing greyhounds. We have tried to involve interested parties in the development of those proposals and we believe that they are on a scale appropriate to the problems that they seek to address; but I take the points that have been made in interventions, which can no doubt be considered as the legislation is discussed.
In most cases we intend to replace the existing 12-month licences with more flexible ones of no more than three years' duration. In some areas, with regard to animal sanctuaries, we are considering registration rather than licensing, although as I said we shall keep the issue under review. A more flexible approach should allow local authorities to target establishments according to risk, thus concentrating their resources where acceptable standards are not being met. It will allow vets and others to become involved without imposing unreasonable financial burdens on the activity that is being licensed or registered. Details of our proposals on secondary legislation are set out in the regulatory impact assessment. As I have already said, there will be full public consultation and scrutiny.
The Bill, like the legislation it will replace, will be what is perhaps somewhat infelicitously called a "common informers" Act, which means that anyone—a private individual or an organisation—can take forward a prosecution under its provisions if they think that they have the necessary evidence. However, powers of entry, search and seizure are reserved for the police, local authorities and the state veterinary service. The definition of an inspector is a person appointed to be an inspector by such an authority.
During the pre-legislative scrutiny, there were a number of questions about the role of the RSPCA and its inspectors. As I said to Mr. Bone a few moments ago, the Bill does not give the RSPCA specific extra powers; indeed, it should be made clear that the RSPCA has not asked for any such extra powers. As is the case now, if the RSPCA has reason to believe that an offence has been committed and entry to a property has been refused, it will approach the police to ask them to use their powers of entry.
Our society is increasingly and rightly intolerant of acts of violence and cruelty towards animals, but recent press campaigns have revealed some nauseating examples of ill-treatment and abuse. From the enormous postbag on such issues received by my Department and, I think, every Member, we know that the public at large want us to provide the courts with tougher penalties for offenders, and that is what the Bill does.
The maximum penalty for causing unnecessary suffering will be a fine of £20,000 or 51 weeks' imprisonment, or both. At present, the top fine is £5,000, so the Bill has raised that penalty significantly. The maximum sentence of 51 weeks' imprisonment is the maximum that magistrates courts can impose under the Criminal Justice Act 2003. The maximum penalty under the welfare offence will be £5,000 or 51 weeks' imprisonment, or both. We are also using the Bill to close a loophole in existing legislation, whereby offenders can circumvent orders disqualifying them from having custody of an animal.
Generally, the Bill applies to England and Wales only. Secondary regulations will be made by my Department and the National Assembly for Wales.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State and appreciate her indulgence.
Will the right hon. Lady clarify a point about the different penalties to which she has just referred? In one case, there is a fine of up to £20,000 and/or 51 weeks in prison; in the other, £5,000 and/or 51 weeks in prison. Can she explain the lack of equivalence between the financial penalty and the sentence of imprisonment in those two different offences?
The heavier fine is obviously thought to be right where there is active cruelty. It was not thought that a penalty of such a proportion should apply for welfare offences
If the hon. Gentleman looks at the legislation that the Bill replaces, he will see that there were similar differences. These are issues that can be explored in Committee. If the House feels that a change should be made, no doubt that can be considered.
I should perhaps make a point about different legislation in different countries. We have put in place procedures for both jurisdictions—England and Wales and Scotland—to have reciprocal arrangements in place to apply disqualification orders so that we prevent any circumstance arising in which a person who is found unfit to own or look after animals by a court in one part of the UK can evade the law by moving between countries.
It was in keeping with the traditions of the House and our people that we were the first nation to protect animals by statute. Since that step was first taken as long ago as the early 19th century, attitudes have undergone a radical change. Over the past 200 years, legislators, the Executive and the courts have stamped out a litany of mediaeval practices: bull-running, bear-baiting, cockfighting, the use of dogcarts, random and pre-meditated acts of cruelty—
I was not going to mention that. There is such a mood of consensus and support across the House that it would be a pity to jeopardise it in any way, especially as I welcome Mr. Ainsworth to his first such debate in this Parliament in his new role.
Those practices were eradicated, or largely eradicated, through statutory initiative. By progressively placing cruelty towards animals outside the bounds of acceptable behaviour, legislation has helped to create a society and a culture in which the vast majority of our fellow citizens abhor unnecessary suffering in animals. We hope and believe that the Bill will create an opportunity—just as the 1911 legislation created a platform on which cruelty became increasingly unacceptable—in the coming 100 years for human responsibility for animal welfare to be actively recognised, nurtured and practised.
I hope that the Bill will serve the purpose of putting animal welfare at the heart of our legislation and that it will take us through the next 100 years, not least because the flexibility that it creates will allow us to make changes much more easily to reflect changing circumstances. I am happy to commend it to the House.
May I begin by entirely endorsing what the Secretary of State said about Tony Banks? He would have loved to be here to witness the Bill. He was a passionate champion of animal welfare—he was almost as passionate about that as he was about Chelsea. He was a funny and clever man. I had the privilege of serving under him on your advisory committee on works of art, Mr. Speaker, which was a joy. When I was shadow Culture Secretary, I had the pleasure of sparring with him when he was Minister for Sport. It was a joy to be insulted by Tony Banks. I will never forget the time that I said something that annoyed him and he said, "I didn't come to the Chamber to be insulted by a man with a Kevin Keegan haircut." That was Tony Banks and, my goodness, how he will be missed.
I know that there is nothing like a debate about animals to bring hon. Members into the Chamber. A lot of people want to speak, so I shall do my best to be brief. However, let me begin by declaring an interest because I believe that I am a person who is responsible for a protected animal under the terms of the Bill. I own a dog, although it is a bit doubtful whether the dog would regard me as the responsible person because it steadfastly refuses to do anything that I ask it to do in our household.
The Bill has had a long gestation period and many midwives. It is the result of a great deal of hard work by a large number of individuals and bodies. As did the Secretary of State, I pay tribute to the work of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee and its Chairman, my right hon. Friend Mr. Jack. My hon. Friend Bill Wiggin, who, I am pleased to say, will wind up the debate for the Opposition, also played a distinguished part in the Committee's proceedings, and I thank all who did so, whether in the House and outside. The Bill is better for the work that they put in.
The Government were right to introduce the Bill in draft form, allowing that input from a large number of different interests, but the scrutiny that that process enabled has exposed the complexity of the issues involved and the diversity of strongly held opinions on specific aspects of what is proposed. That complexity and conflict of opinion perhaps helps to explain why it has taken 95 years to get around to updating the basic framework of animal protection. It is not surprising that the Government have adopted a cautious, almost crablike approach to the legislation—although I notice that, rather unfairly, crabs are not covered under the terms of the Bill. The effect of that approach, however, is that a large number of potentially controversial measures that the Government say they intend to introduce do not appear in the Bill, but will be the subject of secondary legislation. However, before I say more about that, I want to make some general comments on what is clearly a well-intentioned and welcome Bill.
The Secretary of State will be aware that there has been considerable debate about the definition of "animal" for the purposes of the Bill. Indeed, that subject has already been raised. The definition is confined to vertebrates other than man. As I understand it, the Bill's purpose is to alleviate the suffering of animals. It would be logical, therefore, to extend that protection to all animals that have been found, on scientific evidence, to be capable of suffering.
The Secretary of State and David Taylor know that it is the strongly held opinion of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and others that cephalopods—octopus, squid and cuttlefish—are capable of feeling pain. Despite what she said, it is hard to find any reason why the owners of such animals should not be subject to the duty of care that is being conferred on the owners of vertebrates.
Does my hon. Friend accept that the logic of his argument means that slugs and snails in the garden, which are invertebrates and therefore protected under the Bill, would be subject to the same duty of care?
The first and most obvious point is that a person would have to be pretty strange to have a pet slug. I do not think that the duty of care applies. Nor is there a great deal of scientific evidence to suggest that slugs feel pain in the same way as other creatures. However, my hon. Friend makes his point in his own way.
For most people, the new duty of care will have no impact. The vast majority of people who care for animals find it second nature to look after them properly. However, it is a sad fact that much legislation is determined by the actions or failures of a minority. The evidence provided by the RSPCA suggests that a significant number of animals suffer every year because the law is either inadequate or flouted. Clause 8 represents a major step towards ending abuse and neglect. Indeed, the RSPCA goes further and says that it is
"confident that this new offence alone will have an historic impact on animal welfare."
We must indeed hope that it is right.
We also welcome the updating of the enforcement and sentencing provisions that will apply to animal welfare offences. Concerns have been raised that in practical terms the effect of the Home Office's custody plus arrangements will water those down. I hope that the Government look carefully at those suggestions. In addition, I hope that they give further thought to the recommendation of the EFRA Committee that greater maximum sentences should be available to the courts in particularly serious cases of abuse. The Bill also proposes to close a significant loophole whereby people who are subject to disqualification orders flout them by pretending that custody of their animals has passed to somebody else. We very much welcome the closing of that loophole.
Given the frustration that has often been expressed about the way in which the courts frequently do not use the existing powers available to them—the Environmental Audit Committee came across that in its inquiry into wildlife crime not long ago—I am particularly pleased that the courts will now be required to give reasons for not issuing a disqualification order in the event of someone being found guilty of a cruelty offence. All of that, and more, we can agree on.
It will not surprise the Secretary of State to learn that we do have some concerns about a number of measures that will be introduced under the legislation which are not in the Bill. I am talking about the proposed codes of practice and the regulations that are to be introduced by statutory instrument. Rarely can a regulatory impact assessment have contained more information about the Government's intentions than the Bill itself or the explanatory notes. Thank goodness for the regulatory impact assessment—but it would have been much better if the proposed codes of conduct and regulations had been produced in time, if only in draft form, so that their impact could be considered in the context of the Bill.
Is my hon. Friend confident that the Bill will give sufficient protection to the 9,000 or so greyhounds that every year are found to be surplus to the requirements of the racing industry?
I cannot say that I am wholly confident of that because it is one of the matters that will be dealt with under regulations, but the Government have stated their intention to deal with that problem. The duty of care will, of course, apply to greyhounds anyway, so there will be some improvement there. My hon. Friend raises a very good example of the uncertainties that surround so much of this legislation.
The hon. Gentleman is right to say that a number of highly important and controversial issues will be dealt with in detail in secondary legislation. Does he agree that that constitutes a strong case for the Select Committee to scrutinise those matters in the way that it scrutinised the draft Bill?
I believe that the hon. Gentleman served on the Committee that looked at the draft Bill. It is not for me to say what the Select Committee might want to take up in its future programme—I know that Select Committees have more than enough suggestions for their workload most of the time—but it is an interesting suggestion.
May I give my hon. Friend a specific example of the contents of the regulatory impact assessment? I refer to regulations governing the selling of pet animals over the internet. That measure has to be debated properly because it appears to exclude the advertising of pet animals or the selling of animals on auction sites, and the trade is one that should be properly regulated.
I agree. In fairness, the Government have said that they will consult before introducing any of these regulations, but I shall have a little to say about the inadequacy of Statutory Instrument Committees as a means of ensuring thorough and sound debate.
I shall quote from the regulatory impact assessment; this is the nub of the issue. Paragraph 31 says:
"The Animal Welfare Bill is an enabling measure, setting out certain fundamental principles but leaving detailed legislation to regulation and codes of practice."
That, really, is the trouble. Even with the commitment to consult on the regulations and codes of practice, that is an inadequate way for Parliament to consider detailed legislation. Unamendable statutory instruments get a maximum of one and a half hours of obscure debate in Committee. I speak as a former Government assistant Whip, so I know whereof I speak—Government Members are not exactly encouraged by the Whips to participate in the proceedings.
I think I know why the Government have taken this approach. It is partly to prevent the Bill from becoming too long, complex and inflexible, and I have some sympathy with that. However, the Bill is enabling only in the sense that it enables the Government to do virtually whatever they want.
That is a fair point. I fully understand the need for flexibility and I am sympathetic to that, as I have just said, but there are issues arising from the Bill's structure, and they are of concern not only here in Parliament but to all those whose lives and livelihoods, duties and responsibilities are likely to be affected by the regulations and codes of practice at a later date.
The hon. Gentleman is talking about those who will be affected by the proposed legislation. Sadly, some animal cruelty will continue and there are likely to be criminal prosecutions. Does he share my surprise that it is difficult to find in the explanatory notes any trace of a legal aid impact assessment, which is supposed to be provided with all Government Bills now?
The hon. Gentleman has sharp eyes; they are sharper than mine. I take his word for it. I have no doubt that it is something that the Secretary of State will have noted in the appropriate way.
I am sure that the Secretary of State would agree with some of the points that I have been making about the unsatisfactory nature of not knowing what the detail of the Bill will involve when it becomes reality for people in the community. For example, in her interview with Sarah Montague on "Today" this morning, she might have felt slightly easier about answering questions to do with circus animals if the Bill had been structured slightly differently and if the draft regulations had been available. My view is that the Bill is less than ideal, but I have no doubt that the Secretary of State would argue that it is the only practical way to proceed without overloading the Bill.
There are numerous issues that have attracted much attention in the course of the lengthy incubation of the Bill on which the Government's precise intentions have remained unclear.
I am coming to that very point, on which there is a great deal of interest. I ask my right hon. Friend to bear with me.
Among the questions that remain unanswered is the question of what will be exempt by regulation 5(4) from the general ban on mutilation. The timing of my right hon. Friend Mr. Redwood is impeccable. For example, the regulatory impact assessment, as ever the best source of information on the Bill, states, in the context of discussions about the draft Bill:
"Sincere views were held by those who both support and oppose a ban on cosmetic docking and our preference is that there should continue to be freedom of choice."
That suggests to me that the Government are in favour of allowing the cosmetic tail docking of dogs to continue as now. I think that the Secretary of State made that point earlier. I say to my right hon. Friend that if the matter arises in Committee or subsequently on the Floor of the House, my right hon. and hon. Friends will certainly be offered a free vote on the matter and on many of the other issues that are likely to arise in consideration of the Bill.
There are plenty of other ambiguities and loose ends in the Bill that merit further scrutiny. I shall flag up just a few. There is the question of whether wing pinioning of birds should be exempt from the mutilation provision. There is the issue of whether a bird reared for game shooting remains the responsibility of its previous keeper after its release into the wild. I heard what the Secretary of State said earlier about that, and found that welcome. However, there are ambiguities in the text of the Bill.
There is the use of the phrase "good practice" in clause 8, which the RSPCA believes may give rise to lengthy arguments in court. There is the question of whether it should be necessary for authorities to obtain a warrant before entering private premises in the case of an obvious emergency. There is the role of the police, who have questioned whether they should be involved except in cases of serious cruelty. We all know that local authorities are already overstretched. Will they have the funds and expertise to carry out their expanded duties under the Bill? I know that these are details but they are important. It is unfortunate that it appears that many of them will not be resolved by the time that the Bill completes its passage through both Houses of Parliament.
The hon. Gentleman refers to ambiguities. The new leader of the Conservative party has said that he will bring back hare coursing, stag hunting and fox hunting. Does the hon. Gentleman agree with his leader?
I am not surprised that the issue of fox hunting has been raised. I do not think that you would be particularly pleased, Madam Deputy Speaker, if I went too far down that route. One of the advantages of the proposed legislation is the emphasis that is given to sound scientific evidence prior to introducing measures. One of the problems with the fox hunting legislation is that it was not based on scientific evidence. I do not want to go any further on that subject.
Having spoken about the reservations that we have about the way in which the Bill has been structured, it is a good and, we believe, well-intentioned measure, even if it is a sad reflection on human behaviour that such measures are needed. We look forward to a constructive and open dialogue with the Government as the Bill and a long list of subsequent measures pass into law, in the hope that sentient creatures that can suffer pain but cannot speak for themselves will live in a kinder world as a result of our efforts.
May I join hon. Members who have congratulated the Secretary of State and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on introducing this long-overdue legislation? I, too, support the measures that it includes.
There has been some discussion about what is not in the Bill, and matters that will be the subject of secondary legislation and the regulatory impact assessment. I would like to concentrate on annexe C of the regulatory impact assessment, which deals with pet fairs because the terms of the Bill do not pay sufficient attention to the recommendations on pet fairs in the report by the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on the draft Bill. I do not, for instance, agree with the statement in the regulatory impact assessment that there
"is a lack of evidence to suggest that pet fairs by their very nature cannot maintain acceptable welfare standards."
When considering the draft Bill, a major concern of many members of the Select Committee was the wealth of evidence of poor welfare standards at pet fairs. A number of local councils refuse to license pet fairs, and the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health believes that they are illegal. The Government are right to seek to clarify their legality, but they are approaching it the wrong way.
Worries about pet fairs have, of course, been exacerbated by recent concerns about avian flu, particularly evidence presented by the Animal Protection Agency, which is based in my constituency, about the probable link between a quarantine centre where a parrot died in October with signs of the H5N1 infection and the Stafford bird fair where some birds were previously housed. Concerns, however, predate the avian flu outbreak. As I have said, evidence presented by several organisations to the Select Committee revealed concerns about the health, particularly of birds, as well as of other animals at an event at which, with the best will in the world, five or any number of vets could not properly assess the health of the several thousand animals—as many as 13,000 animals at one pet fair—that are offered for sale.
There are concerns, too, about the ease with which disease can be spread at those events, not only between the animals themselves, but from animals to human beings. In an article published in "Veterinary News" in November last year, Elaine Toland of the Animal Protection Agency, Clifford Warwick and Greg Glendell of Birds First explained how, over a period of time, they had visited pet fairs and purchased six birds, all of which were revealed, within a few days or weeks of purchase, to have a number of diseases from which they died. That is the source of the concern that has been expressed by Animal Aid, the Born Free Foundation and the International Fund for Animal Welfare about the spread of disease, which is a real possibility at such events.
It is right that the Government make it clear in the regulatory impact assessment that although they wish to consider licensing pet fairs, they do not wish to bring within the scope of that licensing regime shows and exhibitions by genuine hobbyists, those concerned primarily with the welfare of the animals or birds that they keep who wish to exhibit those animals and exchange information about their care. But where the Government have gone wrong is in asking whether pet fairs should be regulated by a licensing regime, rather than clarifying the law on whether they are illegal. Should not the question have been whether they should be allowed to exist, rather than whether they should the licensed?
I congratulate my hon. Friend on being called in this debate on such an important matter. Does he share my satisfaction that the Government confirmed to the Select Committee that the proposed consultation on the secondary legislation that is to come later this year or next year will be full and include the question whether pet fairs should be licensed, not just how they should be licensed?
I welcome the assurance given to the Select Committee in November 2005 on that issue. The Minister went a little further—I hope that it will be confirmed today—when he said that it would be necessary to consider new means of consultation within Parliament and that he hoped that the Select Committee would want to consider that and other issues covered by the regulatory impact assessment again. That is an issue that my hon. Friend Patrick Hall has raised already this afternoon.
I also welcome the fact that the Minister and the head of DEFRA's animal welfare division, Mr. Bourne, in his evidence before the Select Committee, made it clear that the Government would be willing, as part of their consultation, to consider the question of an out and out ban. But that is not what the regulatory impact assessment attached to the Bill at the moment says, so I would welcome confirmation on those points from the Minister, perhaps later today.
I am pleased that, unlike the draft Bill, the Bill does not, as far as I can tell, seek to repeal section 2 of the Pet Animals Act 1951, which states:
"If any person carries on a business of selling animals as pets in any part of a street or public place, except at a stall or barrow in a market, he shall be guilty of an offence."
There is some confusion here. If that section is to remain on the statute book, how does it gel with the proposal for a system of licensing of pet fairs? By their very nature they should be illegal, and there is no intention to repeal that section, which makes them illegal.
There is a further confusion. I welcome the fact that the Government have taken precautionary measures in relation to avian flu and gone along with the European Commission's directive on banning pet fairs, but there seems to have been a partial lifting of that ban, because as I understand it organisers need merely to have registered their intention to hold such an event two weeks beforehand with a local representative of the state veterinary service. If that is so, it is at odds with my understanding of the current situation, where the local council, as the licensing authority, decides whether to license such events. The Government's approach has a degree of confusion at its heart.
Later this evening, I shall present to the House a petition on the issue containing some 15,000 signatures. The petition asks the Government to think again and hold to their promise to consider an outright ban as part of the consultation on any secondary legislation. It also asks them to go further and deal with the issue now in the Bill, so that the proposed legislation does not overturn the current understanding—this is the view of the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health and a number of councils throughout the country—that pet fairs are illegal.
First, may I add my comments to those of other hon. Members about Tony Banks, who did a great deal in this House for animal welfare? It is very sad that he is not with us to see the introduction of this Bill today.
I welcome the Bill and add my support and that of my hon. Friends to that expressed by the Conservative party and Labour Back Benchers. We support the Bill, but we will also seek to improve it. Although it is a matter of party policy for us, Liberal Democrat Members will, like other hon. Members, have free votes on certain issues, one or two of which have already been raised.
Given that Mr. Ainsworth mentioned that he keeps a protected animal, I should mention that I have two cats, which do even less of what they are told than his dog.
The legislation is long overdue, and it has had a long gestation. David Taylor was right to say that such legislation normally comes forward only under a Liberal Government. If we had had more Liberal Governments, we might have more legislation to improve animal welfare.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way, which allows me to clarify that I did not say that. The Bill refers to "cruel and inhumane punishment", which has been dished out to his former leader in past weeks and months.
I am not sure whether that comment falls within the terms of the Bill, and it is not entirely accurate either.
This is a once-in-a-century opportunity significantly to improve animal welfare in this country, and I congratulate the Government on introducing a Bill that cohesively brings together the relevant Acts of Parliament and that allows the prospect of further improvements. I particularly welcome the duty of care in clause 8, which is central to the Bill. It will go a long way to dealing with the abuses, which all hon. Members know about from their postbags, televisions and elsewhere. In some cases, authorities, including the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, did not intervene to help animals in distress because an offence had not technically taken place. The Secretary of State has mentioned the extension of protection from farm animals to other animals, and I hope that it will deal with such cases, of which there have been too many.
In this country, we have a tremendous affection for animals and a good record of introducing legislation over the centuries. Almost inexplicably, however, some people derive pleasure from inflicting cruelty on animals, while others are cavalier about animal welfare. We must make it clear that we will not tolerate such behaviour and will introduce legislation to tackle it. The increase in penalties also sends a welcome signal that people who hold such views need to be careful, and I hope that it will reduce instances of animal cruelty and of animals not being cared for properly.
I entirely agree. I am sure that the Secretary of State will resist a shopping list of desirable activities and argue, as she already has, that the nature of the Bill provides for future flexibility. I understand that, but certain issues are important and should be included in the Bill. If they are not, we should at least have a ministerial statement clearly setting out the Government's position. Mr. Drew will be pleased to know that I intend to table an amendment in Committee on primates as pets to establish the Government's position on that.
I offer the hon. Gentleman my wholehearted support for his amendment. I understand that the Animal Health and Welfare (Scotland) Bill contains a clause that allows the Scottish Government to bring forward regulations banning the keeping of certain pets. Will he press for such an amendment if his amendment does not survive?
It is true that we can learn from Scotland in many ways. One of the advantages of the devolutionary system is that we can try different legislative approaches in different parts of the United Kingdom, which often leads to good examples such as that cited by the hon. Gentleman.
Much has been made of the work done by the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, but the Government have ignored many of its recommendations, one of which concerns suffering. It said that the whole clause on suffering is unclear in its intent and application. We would not need to discuss primates if the definition of suffering was clear. Part of the reason why it is not is that the Government have merely taken some clauses from case law going back to the 1880s. I hope that in Committee the Government will be more minded to listen to some of the recommendations made by the EFRA Committee than they were previously.
I certainly hope so. We also need to revisit some issues from the draft Bill. The Bill may be an improvement in some ways, but in other ways it has been weakened.
My main concern for the future is that the good intentions in the Bill may not be followed through because to some extent it relies on external activity. The duty of care provisions in the clauses that I mentioned, which I very much support, will rely on the RSPCA and others taking court action in particular cases to establish case law. That applies to all legislation to some extent, but to a greater extent in respect of the Bill. That pushes the responsibility for the interpretation of this central part of the Bill away from Parliament and on to the courts. The wording is therefore terribly important. At worst, we could end up passing an Act that we all think is very good, but subsequently find that it is flawed when tested in the courts, or that the secondary legislation that we expected is not introduced. We need to push the Government further to try to get a clearer picture than emerges at present.
The hon. Member for East Surrey referred to the terms of the secondary legislation. It will indeed provide flexibility if we have a Bill that can be amended quickly in the light of circumstances; I entirely accept the point made by the hon. Member for Carlisle. However, there is a balance to be struck between that flexibility and some degree of certainty that the measures that we expect, and have been argued for outside, will be introduced. Sadly, we can find in enabling legislation passed under all Governments many examples whereby provisions have been put into a Bill that was subject to cross-party agreement and enacted, yet they sit there unused.
I can go back to my days as a parliamentary researcher and the Environmental Protection Act 1990. It gained cross-party agreement yet some provisions have still not been effected 16 years later. Reliance on secondary legislation is reliance on the good faith of the Government—perhaps not even this Government but the next—in introducing it. It worries me that the provisions may not be effected in their entirety.
Clause 62 deals with the commencement arrangements but its specifications are lax. It specifies one or two provisions that will come into force immediately but it also provides:
"The remaining provisions of this Act . . . shall come into force on such day as the Secretary of State may by order appoint".
That means that the provisions could simply sit there indefinitely. When the Government get cold feet about tail docking or circuses, they will simply say, "This is too difficult; we won't bother to do it." We therefore need some sort of assurance either from the Under-Secretary about the codes of conduct that he intends to introduce or about the commencement date for all the clauses. We need something more than the current open-ended arrangement if we are to be certain that the Bill will be as we want it.
Are not the two issues that the hon. Gentleman mentions interlinked? Is not it likely that the Government want to do all the soundings necessary to effect codes of practice and regulations before they introduce a clause that relies on them? Is not that a sensible way of proceeding?
Yes. I have tremendous respect for the hon. and learned Lady's legal background, having served on the Human Rights Committee with her, but I stress that the arrangement is open-ended and there is no guarantee that anything will be introduced. There is no provision for returning matters to the House if no action has been taken. We need the flexibility that the hon. and learned Lady rightly identifies and some sort of guarantee, which simply does not exist at the moment.
Several matters are missing from the Bill, but perhaps Ministers will tell us that they will be introduced subsequently. I make it clear that I shall not table an amendment on hare coursing or anything else that is missing from the measure—it will have to stay missing as far as I am concerned.
However, we need clarity about pet fairs. The analysis of David Lepper, who is a close parliamentary neighbour, is correct and the position is unclear. Many of us believe that the Pet Animals Act 1951 bans pet fairs, yet they go on all the time. It appears that they will be licensed or registered and allowed to continue, contrary to the 1951 Act. That is legal nonsense and needs to be cleared up. I shall introduce a new clause on pet fairs to try to achieve a ban. I am not confident that the Government will accept it—the Under-Secretary shakes his head without having seen it, which is to prejudge the matter. Never mind, I hope that it will give the Government the opportunity at least to issue a statement to clarify the position.
The Government's intentions on other issues, with which hon. Members are familiar, such as electric shock collars and circuses, need clarification. The Secretary of State mentioned game birds in her opening speech. When they are in cages, it is unclear whether they are classified for the purposes of legislation as farm animals, to which agricultural provisions apply, protected animals, to which the Bill applies, or something in between. Clarity is important if we expect various authorities to take action to protect their welfare. I should be grateful if the Under-Secretary commented on that in his winding-up speech.
The draft Bill has been watered down in a number of respects and I am not sure about the reason for that. We need to understand the Government's thinking rather than simply abandoning provisions that many of us believed were useful. For example, clause 7 covers fighting. It appears satisfactory and I hope that no one would object to its content. However, in the draft Bill, the provision contained much more, which has been removed. I should be grateful if the Under-Secretary explained the reason for that in his winding-up speech.
In the draft Bill, for example, the equivalent of clause 7 made it an offence to use photographic and recording equipment at a fight, but that provision has now been removed. Presumably, therefore, under the new arrangements people will be able to film these disgusting activities and escape a penalty. We need to be told why that provision has been removed, but it was not mentioned in the Secretary of State's introductory speech.
May I give the hon. Gentleman another example of a provision that has been watered down? It concerns giving pets as prizes. I know that an age limit has been proposed, but some of us find it repugnant that animals can be used as prizes at all, and I hope that the Government will reconsider this issue and go back to the provision in the draft Bill.
Is not there a contradiction involved in proposing all these amendments and new clauses? This is, after all, an enabling Bill, and if we put down too many amendments there is a risk that we shall debate the specifics without focusing on the mechanisms of the secondary legislation necessary for us to scrutinise the workings of the Bill properly.
The hon. Gentleman appears to be disagreeing with his Front-Bench team, because the argument for more clarity was put forward very eloquently by the hon. Member for East Surrey. I am reasonably happy with the generality of the Bill; the Government have, by and large, got the general provisions about right. However, it is not clear whether there will be the necessary follow-through, and unless we have some guarantees on that, the Bill will not be worth the paper that it is written on. That is why we need further clarification from the Government.
The hon. Gentleman has mentioned certain controversial issues that he wants to address by tabling amendments or new clauses in Committee or on Report. Surely, a more constructive and coherent approach would be to find a mechanism whereby the House can scrutinise the secondary legislation. We have been told that there will be consultation on that. Fine, but the legislation will then come back under the existing procedures of the House. Mr. Ainsworth rightly pointed out that the Statutory Instruments Committee was not an adequate forum to provide such scrutiny. The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee is minded to scrutinise many of these issues, but would the hon. Gentleman's party support finding an imaginative way—not just through an Adjournment debate or a Select Committee—for the House to make decisions on some of those issues? Would not that be the healthiest way of getting them aired, dealt with and decided?
The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point, but it is theoretical because we have heard no such proposal from the Government. If the Government wish to be imaginative in dealing with secondary legislation, I would be happy to listen to their proposals, but, so far, we have not heard any. We have heard that the Bill will be subject to the normal legislative arrangements, and that we are to use a failing system of scrutiny via secondary legislation to deal with important aspects of it, namely all the provisions that are not included in the general proposals set out in the Bill before us today. If there is a better way of doing that, let us hear it from the Government, because so far we have heard nothing from them.
I share the concern expressed by the hon. Member for East Surrey about the inadequacy of statutory instruments. I have raised with the Leader of the House and others the fact that statutory instruments cannot be amended, for example. We either accept them or reject them. The Government bring in their troops, who are told to support the statutory instrument, and even if one of their number points out a fault, they are placed under tremendous pressure to approve it. That is not a good system, and we need to improve it.
On licensing and registration, I am worried that the Government are proposing to allow the registration of certain activities, rather than licensing them. The hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion raised that point earlier in connection with pet fairs. I remember when the district council in Lewes stopped registering roadside fast-food traders—hot dog stalls—because it could not control them; it could only register them. It found that the stalls were putting up signs saying "Lewes district council registered", as though some kind of mark of approval had been given. It can be counterproductive to register an activity. In the context of a duty of care and of animal welfare, we should consider licensing in most cases, rather than registration. I am not sure that the idea of registration is worth pursuing at all.
We should certainly consider licensing for animal sanctuaries. Some very well-meaning people, who have run what they call sanctuaries, have actually collected large numbers of animals in their house and been unable to look after them properly. Consequently, animal welfare has suffered. We need to deal with that problem and stop describing such places as animal sanctuaries.
I greatly welcome the Bill, which contains some very good provisions, but we need to make sure that its proposals can be followed through. My colleagues and I will seek to do so in Committee and on Report.
First, as the current chair of the associate parliamentary group on animal welfare, I want to pay tribute to Tony Banks, who was a leading member of the group. Only the day before we broke for the Christmas recess, I had a meeting with him in which he outlined his daring proposals to put a ban on Canadian products in order to stop the horrendous slaughter of seal pups. He is a great loss to us all, and I am sure that he would have made a very interesting speech today.
Unfortunately, I will probably make quite a boring speech. As other Members have said, the reality is that this Bill is the most important piece of animal legislation since Lloyd George was Prime Minister. I support the fact that it is an enabling Bill, as it is the only way forward. Members should cast their minds back to the time of the Factories Act 1961 and the Offices, Shops and Railway Premises Act 1963—I happened to be a safety officer at the time—which were horrendous. The then Government said that they had to be got rid of, as they could not be adjusted and were out of date—they referred to things in the 19th century—and brought forward the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974, which has served us well ever since. I take the point of Norman Baker that the Bill provides the opportunity for a Government not to bring forward secondary legislation, but I think that he would agree that the animal welfare lobby in the House is such that any Government or Minister who tried to hide behind that would get a very rough ride. I am sure that our Ministers are not considering doing so.
While I support the Bill in general, I have one or two reservations about it. I wrote to the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend Mr. Bradshaw with regard to animal sanctuaries. I must declare an interest as I am a patron of two animal sanctuaries in north Cumbria. One is the Wetheral animal refuge, set up many decades ago by the well-known figure Alfred Brisco to provide a rest home for pit ponies, with the unfortunate slogan, "even pit ponies deserve a fair crack at the whip". It is an excellent facility, is very professionally run and has provided a service in rehousing pets for many years. I am proud to be a patron of it. A much smaller sanctuary, Stonehouse, in Moorhouse in my constituency, is run by an amazing lady called Elizabeth McDonagh and many friends. It is a small sanctuary, known to the Minister for Climate Change and the Environment, who spent a pleasant afternoon there last year when visiting my constituency, and it takes discarded animals, whether farm animals, old greyhounds or ferrets—there are plenty of ferrets. It is very well run.
There have been some horrendous cases, however, of people—I do not think that they are bad people—who have been overwhelmed by the demand to rehouse animals. They have reached the point at which they cannot cope, and there have been cases of cruelty. There is an argument about licensing and registration, and I think that we can probably get away with registration—the advantage of an enabling Bill is that if we are wrong, we can change it. The duty of welfare care will apply to sanctuaries as it will to anywhere else. We should therefore give it a try. There could be a difficulty whereby bureaucracy puts good sanctuaries out of business, but the matter must be considered.
The second issue that I want to raise is the tethering of animals. We have all received briefings, and I am grateful to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals for its briefings on many subjects, including tethering. Sadly, I witnessed an instance of it some years ago when returning from a rugby match in Yorkshire. A terrified horse was tethered at the roadside, probably because it was shy of traffic and the owner had decided that that was the way to cure it. Juggernauts were going past all the time. I stopped the car and telephoned the police and the RSPCA. I was told "You are right, and we have received a number of complaints, but the law does not allow us to do anything, because the law is not being broken." I hope that the Minister will ensure that the code of practice includes rules on the tethering of animals, especially horses, near roads.
The Select Committee made it very clear that the Government should consider whether mental suffering should be specified in the Bill. The position seems simple to me. The Bill will cover physical suffering; the hon. Gentleman's point relates entirely to mental suffering. Why should we not incorporate mental suffering in the definition of suffering in clause 4?
I do not disagree with that, but I assume that the duty of care would constitute a catch-all, and that we could use it in such cases.
I am a great supporter of circuses, and I realise that they provide the first live entertainment for many children. I do not want them to disappear. I fear that too many children spend too much time in front of the television, and not enough time going out and having real-life experiences. But in the United Kingdom in 2006 there is no place and no need for wild animals in circuses. I think that it is Bobby Roberts's circus that has a lone elephant—not a troupe of elephants—which travels around the country. I believe that it is 52 years old. That should be stopped. Similarly, the welfare of tigers, lions and zebras, which are wild animals, cannot be catered for in circuses.
The hon. Gentleman has dismissed television, but does he not agree that one of the advantages of modern television and wildlife photography is that children can grow up experiencing what wildlife is really like through television without needing to see it in circuses, which are inherently cruel in their way of presenting it?
I entirely agree. In the 1940s and 1950s there might have been a case for the use of wild animals in circuses—those who wanted to see an elephant might have to go to the circus—but now people can watch the Discovery channel, for instance.
I have a feeling that the Government are running shy of the issue, because they are frightened of being told, "It is a nanny state: you are banning too much."
I would have preferred travelling circuses to be regulated, or indeed banned. I entirely agree with what my hon. Friend said about their incompatibility with the duty of care specified in clause 8. Is that not the key, however? Will it not prove impossible for travelling circuses to meet the requirements of clause 8, especially the five freedoms listed in subsection (2), and does that not mean that they will inevitably die out?
That is probably true, but if I asked the Minister, I am sure he would not say that the clause would ban wild animals in circuses. In 1998, the associate parliamentary group on animal welfare went into this issue in great depth and produced a report on it. It concluded that there was no justification at all for such behaviour.
I turn finally to an issue that concerns most of us. I am worried about the Government's commitment to dealing with—I am not going to use the easy phrase—the amputation of young dogs' tails. Such amputations are unnecessary, outdated and unethical, and should be stopped. We in this House have been told for many years that this issue presents no problem. In 1993, we voted through legislation banning breeders from docking puppies' tails. The previous year, the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons had said that it was unethical for vets to dock tails for anything other medical reasons. Last year, however, some 70,000 of these so-called operations were carried out on puppies in this country. If the breeders and the vets are not performing them, who is? We need to ask that question, and the Government need to make it clear that they are against such practices. Apparently, the draft Bill was of that mind, but the Government have backtracked and said that they prefer to leave this issue to the individual and to individual breeders. If we do that, nothing will change; if we leave it to the Kennel Club, nothing will change.
Is not the answer to the hon. Gentleman's question that if vets are not doing it, it is illegal under current law? What would he do about working dogs, which are in danger of injuring their tails? In countries where tail docking is banned, tail injuries increase substantially.
It is pretty obvious that if a dog has not got a tail, it is not going to injure it. I would ban all amputation of dogs' tails. We could look at the question of working dogs and if there was a large increase in tail injuries, we could perhaps introduce secondary legislation to change the law. However, that is not what we are talking about. I do not know about other Members, but until I received from the Dogs Trust a photograph of a very handsome boxer with a tail—I have it in my hand—I had not seen a boxer with a tail. Boxers are not working dogs. This is what we should be working toward.
I do not wish to say any more. I thanked the Minister when he came to do the APGAW reception for his command of his brief. I said then that it is a good Bill, which it is, but that it will be made better by amendment, and I still believe that.
I join those other Members who have paid much-deserved tribute to Tony Banks. Tony was a tremendous worker for animal welfare. He is obviously most closely associated with the Hunting Act 2004, but he was also involved in a vast range of other initiatives, including even almost declaring war on the Chinese Government over the treatment of bears in China. A lot of his work and his agitation over the years is represented here in this Bill; in many ways, it stands as a fitting tribute to his time in Parliament.
I begin with some extremely unusual words, four of them: I congratulate the Government. [Interruption.] Members will never hear it again. That is probably about as friendly as I intend to get during this debate, but to be serious, I do congratulate the Government on introducing the first comprehensive animal welfare measure in a very long time. Many individual pieces of such legislation have been passed by successive Governments, but this is the first comprehensive Bill for a long while. I do not refer to Liberal Governments so I shall not say how long the period has been, but I am delighted that this Bill has been produced.
Very often, people are inclined to be dismissive about the importance of animal welfare and say that we should attend to other priorities. They think that concern for animals is based on a misplaced anthropomorphism or sheer sentimentality, whereas I believe that how we treat our animals is a measure of society. Animals have no voice of their own that they can make heard. Any ill treated human being can speak, but animals cannot: what goes on behind closed doors is determined entirely by human beings. Because animals have to take whatever we dish out, it is right that we should create a proper legislative framework to ensure that any suffering that might be inflicted is both necessary and minimal.
I have never been an extremist when it comes to animal welfare. I am not a vegetarian, nor do I think that it is never justifiable to use animals in medical research, but I do believe that we have a duty to prevent suffering whenever it is unnecessary. However, many of the proposals are grey rather than black or white, and we must clarify them as the Bill passes through the House.
For example, I am very relieved that the Bill deals with the concept of an animal's welfare, and not just with the cruelty that it might suffer. However, most hon. Members will accept that there is a difference between undue negligence—the harm inflicted by people who simply do not care what animals go through—and the sort of neglect that is inflicted through ignorance. I am not sure that the Bill makes that distinction, even though the latter type of neglect is inflicted on animals in this country every day.
Many people approach the ownership of animals with sentimentality, but it is a serious business. My most recent vet's bill came to £590, even though I only have two—admittedly quite fat—domestic cats. Owning animals incurs costs and calls for responsibility and vigilance, and the fact that many people do not understand that is especially evident at this time of year, when many Christmas presents are left tied to trees.
I am not such a child as to propose that we legislate for that lack of understanding. That would be impossible, but we must examine the amount of education available to people at the point when they acquire an animal. I believe that, at that moment, people should be given a considerable degree of education about what is involved in keeping an animal throughout what might be quite a long life.
The number of people who do not know the life spans of the animals that they take on is amazing. For example, some people think that a tortoise will live for only five years or so, when in fact it might live longer than most people. It is crucial that people understand what is involved in owning a pet.
I do not want to pre-empt any of my right hon. Friend's remarks, but does she think that there are some animals that are wholly unsuitable for keeping as domestic pets?
My hon. Friend's timing is immaculate, as was the case earlier with an intervention on my hon. Friend Mr. Ainsworth, the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman. In fact I was going to speak about primates in a few seconds.
With some animals, ownership can be justified only very rarely. In the case of primates, it may very occasionally happen that a scientist rescues one that is not suitable for release into the wild and which cannot be placed in a zoo because it is not au fait with others of its species. Such circumstances may come about on very rare occasions, but most people will cleave to the proposition that a human being does not need to own a primate as that would not be in the animal's interest.
The Bill does not deal with the matter of keeping primates as pets, and another large grey area in the proposals has to do with circus animals. Children of my generation used to love going to the circus, where the animals' performance gave us much innocent pleasure. I remember, of course, the chimps' tea party. I did not see anything like it again until I saw Prime Minister's questions. I also remember seeing elephants balancing on an amazingly small space. I have seen balancing acts in this place, but nothing in between that was as spectacular. Now, of course, I understand, as I suspect we all do, that much of the conduct used to persuade animals to act in that fashion is not benign—and that is a deep understatement.
It appears that under present legislation it is legal to beat an animal in a circus in order to produce the required performance, although it is not legal to beat the animal once the performance has been produced. In other words, one may use physical punishment to train an animal in a particular method. That has to be wrong, because there is no gain for humanity in a successful circus performance. I am therefore concerned—and that concern is shared by animal welfare organisations—about some of the changes that have been made to clause 4. We are told that it has been tidied up, but the provision in clause 4(3)(d) seems to be a get-out clause, because it provides that an assessment of suffering may include whether it was
"proportionate to the purpose of the conduct concerned".
For performing animals, the purpose of the conduct is a perfect act, and a fair amount of physical ill-treatment could be justified as technically in proportion to the conduct.
My right hon. Friend may be surprised to learn that that line comes from case law— Ford v. Wiley—from the 1880s. The Government have lifted decent case law and put it into that clause at the behest of parliamentary counsel, which is one reason why this part of the Bill has become so confused.
My hon. Friend has just enlightened me and probably a large section of the House with his learned discourse. I did not know that, but it is undeniable that that part of the Bill is confused or, at least, a grey area with insufficient clarity.
My right hon. Friend will not regret giving way, because I entirely endorse much of what she has said about circuses. However, what is her attitude towards the use of performing horses in circuses?
Wherever cruelty or unnatural treatment is involved in the maintenance of an animal for no good reason, it is wrong.
I would like to see a proper debate on electric shock collars. I speak with caution, because I was deeply involved in prisons for some time and I am aware of the role played by electric shock collars in training. Nevertheless, I have come to the view that other methods are just as effective and we should have a full debate and a free vote on the issue in this House. I would also prefer it if it were on the Floor of the House and not in Committee.
The question of tail docking has already been covered fairly extensively. It is an important issue. Tails are docked for one of two reasons. First, it is done for cosmetic reasons, which can never be justified and should be outlawed, with no vet allowed to do it. The second is applied to working dogs, especially gun dogs, and others whose tails may become damaged in the course of their rather regrettable duties. However, other parts of the animals may be damaged in the course of those regrettable duties, such as paws, ears and noses. We are talking about preventive mutilation. That is not justifiable.
The farce is that whereas Mr. Martlew rightly said that he had not seen a boxer with a tail, I have seen many working gun dogs with tails. Their tails were not docked and they did not appear to have come to grief. Once again, I hope that there will be a full debate on anti-docking on the Floor of the House, rather than merely in Committee, with a free vote. Docking includes the cutting through of muscles, tendons and up to seven pairs of nerves. It also means severing bone and cartilage connections; it is not a small, cosmetic operation, but something that causes a great deal of pain.
We should also consider the purpose of tails. I shall not say that if a dog loses its tail it loses its smile, but the tail is a means of communication. We even use the word metaphorically. I might say that my hon. Friend Mr. Gray had his tail between his legs—[Laughter.] That would of course mean that he was somewhat dispirited after the hunting result. I might say that I was feeling waggy-tailed today, which would mean that I was happy. The tail is not just a point of communication for humans. We have to understand that the tail is a genuine means of communication between dogs, and aggression can result if dogs cannot communicate with each other. In case anyone says that bans are unworkable, I point out that there has been a ban in Norway since 1987, and in Sweden and Switzerland since 1988. Those bans have worked and none of those countries has seen fit to repeal them.
Finally, whatever laws we pass after our debates on the Bill must be observed. It demeans democracy when the House passes law, sometimes by a large majority, yet some people out there decide that because they do not like the law, they will not obey it. If, for example, following a ban on docking, we do not see boxers with tails, we will know that the law is being disobeyed. This law, like the hunting law or any other law, must be observed when it is passed.
I am delighted to have had the opportunity to contribute to the debate, and hope that the final resolutions will mean a much better world for our dumb friends.
I am pleased to speak strongly in support of the Bill, which has been long awaited and is much needed. It revises out-of-date laws—the 20 pieces of legislation dependent on the Protection of Animals Act 1911, whose cruelty provisions have never been changed.
I congratulate the Government on the way that they put the Bill together. There have been suggestions in the debate that the Government are not prepared to listen, but their record belies that. When the Bill was put out for consultation between
Reference has been made to the Select Committee, on which I was delighted to serve, even though it took longer than I had anticipated. The Committee received 220 written memorandums and took oral evidence from 51 organisations. It produced 101 recommendations, and I am delighted that the Government have shaped and changed the Bill in the light of those comments. I am confident that given that approach and model of good practice, the House will have further opportunities to change the Bill.
I was also impressed as I served on the Select Committee by how warmly the Bill was welcomed in general terms, although there were deep and strong differences on matters such as wild animals performing in circuses, tail docking, shock collars and pet farms, and we have heard several concerns about them today. Norman Baker made his position clear. People will table amendments in Committee to try to change the Bill, but the structure of the Bill is essentially right. It is an enabling Bill that will bring about remarkable and much-needed changes in animal welfare, so we should support and stick with it.
The key provision in the Bill is clause 8, which provides for the duty of care of pet owners to look after their pets properly and sets out the so-called five freedoms. The significant aspect of the Bill is the fact that it takes the focus away from prosecution for cruelty and puts it on the prevention of suffering, which is a new and important change. I was extremely impressed by the evidence that the RSPCA gave on numbers and the individual detailed case studies that showed that suffering could have been prevented by early intervention.
I hope that the Minister will argue strongly in Committee against the kind of amendments that have been talked about this evening. The important thing is to get the structure, values and framework of the Bill right—after all, we have waited 100 years for it. If we get that right, the rest will follow. I was interested that the Secretary of State said that she would consult widely on regulations and codes of practice and give adequate time to examine them. That is the trade-off. Let us get the structure of the Bill and a commitment from the Government that when they bring forward important regulations and codes of practices, there will be real consultation both inside and outside Parliament so that important individual issues, such as wild animals in circuses and shock collars, can be properly debated. I am against such activities, but I am confident that the values of the Bill will ultimately—we might have to wait some time—lead to their demise.
I hope that we will have the opportunity to examine clause 4 in detail in Committee. Tony Baldry has already pointed out that we need to consider mental, as well as physical, suffering. The right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald talked about clause 4(3)(d), which offers the defence of
"whether the suffering was proportionate to the purpose of the conduct concerned".
That has real relevance to performing animals in circuses, so I hope that we will be able to test the principles in the clause and push them to their limits in Committee.
I want to make three further points. First, the RSPCA has briefed hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber extremely well. It has asked for no further powers under the Bill and has been granted no further powers. There is confusion about the term "inspector" in clause 45. I understand that such an inspector will be appointed by the Secretary of State at a national level, or by local authorities. I think that the Government have in mind people such as state veterinary inspectors, or environmental health officers who work for a local authority. There is confusion between the person referred to in clause 45 and the traditional hard-working, uniformed RSPCA inspector. The RSPCA has many friends, but it has detractors as well, and we heard the voices of some of them in correspondence quoted in the Chamber. There will be no new powers of entry. The RSPCA will continue to be reliant on the powers of entry of the police.
Secondly, the regulatory impact assessment, mentioned by Mr. Ainsworth, argues that because of earlier intervention and the licensing system, there will be no extra cost to local authorities. I am sceptical about that. This is a major and important piece of legislation, for which many of us have pressed for many years, and it will be a tragedy if its success were denied because of a lack of resources.
Thirdly, the Bill's strength—we will see this throughout our discussions—is that it provides a vehicle for debate and change. I have been very interested in the recent discussions on shooting, which has been mentioned. Unlike hunting with hounds, people—even implacable opponents, such as the British Association for Shooting and Conservation and the League Against Cruel Sports—are prepared to talk about shooting in a sensible way. Over recent months, I have noticed a growing awareness that shooting will have to change to survive. Our Labour party manifesto makes it clear that we will support shooting and not restrict its practice, and I have three examples from the shooting sector. First, what I found so exciting was that the BASC came out strongly against breeding cages and intensive methods of rearing poultry. It was also exciting to hear the League Against Cruel Sports recognise and accept that.
Secondly, snaring is also important. It is legal, but has many deficiencies. Through the good offices of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, a new snaring code has been put together. The Bill will encompass that code of practice. There is more work to be done on it, but I am impressed by the willingness of supporters and opponents of shooting to get into a dialogue.
My third example is what has become known as industrial shooting—large shoots that often pay remarkable fees for big bags of birds that are not used for food or retail. There are stories that many of them are buried in pits. That is wrong. Shooters who want the sport to survive know that there needs to be change. Again, it is interesting that there is an overlap of views between the BASC, which is pro-shooting, and the league, which is against it.
I hope that the Bill proves a vehicle for sensible discussions about animal welfare. What struck me—perhaps I should not get into this—about the debate on hunting was how entrenched people were in their positions. Change will be necessary if shooting is to survive. I hope that the Bill provides us with a framework and set of values so that we can all have sensible and rational discussions about animal welfare activities. I am against wild animals in circuses, tail docking and pet farms, but I strongly believe that the Bill's structure, although we may have to wait for it, will ultimately lead to a sensible discussion and the demise of those activities.
It is a delight to follow Paddy Tipping, who made a reasoned, and seasoned, contribution to the debate in his usual sincere manner, and I am grateful to him for that.
A number of people have commented on their memories of Tony Banks in this place. Although he became famous, or even infamous, for his campaigns on hunting with dogs, he did, as my right hon. Friend Miss Widdecombe mentioned, take a great interest in many animals. During my time as chief executive of the Cats Protection League, or Cats Protection, as it now prefers to be called, Tony was made one of the patrons of the league, along with my right hon. Friend. Tony was a strong supporter and a great cat lover. I like to think that he would have a wry smile on his face at the thought that he, like the cats he loved, left a mark on this place. He was a man who will be well thought of in the animal welfare world for the sincerity with which he cared for the pets he owned and the pets he argued for.
It is a pleasure to take part in a debate in which there are so many Members present who over the years have expressed such keen interest in animal welfare work. I am glad that we can now have this debate, which has been delayed for so long under Conservative Governments and under this Government because there was always the danger that the Bill would be hijacked and would concentrate only on hunting with dogs. Every time Ministers suggested trying to do something about the legislation, the business managers on all sides would run for cover because they knew that it would be a Christmas tree Bill, with everybody wanting to hang a bauble on it, so it would be completely lost in this place. Now that hunting with dogs has been taken care of in a different way, we can concentrate on how legislation affects animals more widely.
The contribution of my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald about our responsibilities, particularly to domesticated animals, was well made. When I represented the largest cat welfare charity in Britain and went to different places, I often got quite hostile questions from people in the audience. We raised £27 million a year for cats, and people would ask, "Why aren't you giving that to children or to people abroad? How dare you have 300 employees spending so much time and effort looking after cats?", without realising that, as my right hon. Friend said, how we treat our animals is very much a mark of our society.
What helped to make the cruelty debate more realistic was when, eventually, the police came to the conclusion that a person—sadly, often, a man—who will kick a dog is often the same individual who will as likely kick a child or a partner. The same is true of cruelty to cats. Some of my friends used to tease me about my work with Cats Protection, saying, "I bet you mix with some pretty strange people." The term "mad cat lady" was always being thrown at me and the people with whom I was dealing. I well remember when my right hon. Friend visited one of the shelters; I went with her because the manager was a bit nervous about having someone so famous come to look at a cat. My right hon. Friend went round to decide to which one or two cats she might give a home. There was one that she particularly liked, and the manager came up to me quietly and asked, "How do we tell her that this cat is an ankle-biter?" I approached my right hon. Friend and said, "You might want to be careful because one of the cats you're looking at is an ankle-biter." She said, "Only once." We understood exactly. Of course, she went on to give the animals a wonderful home.
The thing that I have discovered, having met thousands of men and women who work in cat welfare, is that the vast majority are perfectly normal—but, every now and then, we get a really odd one. What the Bill does, particularly for sanctuaries, is deal with the odd one: the person who ostensibly loves the animal and means well and takes in a cat or two; then it is five and then 10, and because the cat is one of the most proficient breeding animals in the world, before very long it is 100. We would then have to try to move in vets, the RSPCA and social workers to do something about it.
The message that we always used to try to put across to people is, "You don't have to be kooky to look after a cat. You don't have to be an extreme animal welfare person. You just have to be normal." We would say to those with a dog, "Have a cat as well" because dogs and cats get on well together. I would then get hostile letters from cat ladies saying that one should never have cats with children or with dogs. What I found increasingly with some of the smaller sanctuaries where we had to put in vets to try to help is that some people's love for the animal was completely overtaken by their inability to cope with the care of the animal. Although they meant well they just could not cope.
I am glad that the Government are bringing forward measures to tackle licensing and registration. The Secretary of State, in her welcome opening remarks, mentioned that there would be greater need for welfare sanctuaries. The right hon. Lady is probably right in saying that. As a result of that, there will be much greater need for care standards. The Cats Protection charity introduced cat care standards. It was hugely controversial because it was designed to limit the number of cats that people could look after—rather than hundreds, say a maximum of five. It was rather like declaring war on some of our supporters.
When it comes to sanctuaries, vets are not always the best inspectors. I found it surprising that some vets can have a pretty hard-hearted approach to pets. I am not decrying the profession generally, but I have met a number of vets who have a pretty tough approach to animals. Although they would obviously care for them from a veterinary point of view, welfare was less of a strong point for them. When secondary legislation is brought forward, especially that dealing with sanctuaries, it is important that proper care and attention is given to the way in which animals are kept.
Members receive a lot of lobbying from the RSPCA, which has its detractors. Sometimes it is more political than some people would like. My experience of working closely with it over seven years is that it means well and that the political dimension of its activities is only a small, although controversial, part of its work overall. The RSPCA undertakes a vast iceberg of work through its paid staff and also through voluntary helpers. It is remarkable. It is right that Members and Government advisers take note of the RSPCA's views.
We must have a mind to some of the other welfare societies that have particular expertise. Reference has been made to the work of the Dogs Trust. My hon. Friends the Members for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) and for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) have been great supporters of the trust. It is a wonderful organisation. It used to be called the National Canine Defence League. In our well-educated society, people did not understand what canine meant, so it was thought that the title "Dogs Trust" would be a bit easier and better to market. It has a dedicated chief executive called Clarissa Baldwin, who has sent a briefing pack to us all. I hope that Members who are appointed to the Committee will consider it closely. The trust does a marvellous job in looking after dogs, as does the Battersea Dogs Home, which is across the river from this place. It takes in cats as well, and its work has been continuing for 100 years.
Some of us might get into hot water over the business of mutilation. I find it a difficult issue. I can understand the point that is made about working dogs and the problems of maggots and faeces, for example, and there is also the domestic issue. I am confused because for many years I had a wonderful dog, which was a Labrador. It was not a gun dog or a working dog but a family pet. I lived in Shropshire and I saw many gun dogs at work. I cannot remember seeing a Labrador with a docked tail. It may be that some dogs are more appropriate to be gun dogs than others, but I think that Labradors are quite well used. Those who are in favour of the mutilation of tails will have to persuade me on the Labrador point.
I have some sympathy with my hon. Friend on the issue of tail docking. How would he see the matter being policed? I have a five-year-old terrier without a tail. I am sure that she is very sorry that she does not have one. If I get another terrier, I will make sure that it has a tail. If a ban is introduced, how will I prove that the dog's tail was docked before the ban came into place?
I take my hon. Friend's point. Our family pet has a docked tail, and had one when we took it in. Many people give homes to rescued animals that have docked tails. Whatever the regulation that takes effect, from that moment on no doubt prosecutions will occur, if the practice continues.
I can understand why the Kennel Club is arguing on behalf of its members. It guards the purity of the breeds with great care, and it does a remarkable job. Many people forget that the club is not only about the defence of the breeds—it is a generous charity, together with other welfare charities. It has a policing job within breeds as well as a supportive role, and it is generous to other dog welfare charities. I understand what my hon. Friend is saying, but I think that there will be a way round the issue once the proposed legislation is in place.
It is what will come from the legislation that worries me. We have all praised the Government for what they are doing, and that praise is meant genuinely, but I urge them to think back to the Environment Bill, which was enacted last year. Within that measure was a clause dealing with stray dogs. It provided for how they would be collected, cared for and all the rest of it. It was a flimsy part of the Bill. The Minister who was responsible for the Bill—not the Minister on the Front Bench—was nervous about it. There was not much time for it to be considered by the Committee. Dog wardens throughout the country are confused about what is going on.
The dog welfare charities, particularly the Dogs Trust, are trying to re-home stray dogs, and they are under great pressure. The measure was sold to us as enabling legislation and it was said that we would return to the details later. We have not done so, and stray dogs are still very much at issue. My hon. Friend Mr. Ainsworth, speaking from the Opposition Front Bench, had a bit of a dig at the Government about the Bill being open-ended. I have given an example of where previous open-ended legislation has passed through the House and has not worked.
There are so many issues of animal welfare to talk about. Clearly, everyone will wish to participate in consideration of the Bill in Committee. I hope that the business managers will ensure that consideration on Report will be of a decent length. What tends to happen is that Bills return from Committee and we find that there is no real time for the House to express its opinions. This is one Bill where the business managers can afford to be generous with time. We are talking not about party political issues, but issues that are widely felt not only in this place but by those who send us here. I look forward to the Bill's consideration in Committee and I wish the Committee well. I am glad that the debate can take place without extreme views dominating the agenda. It is because of that that so many aspects of animal welfare have had to sit on the back burner. I congratulate the Minister on bringing the Bill forward and on all the work that he has done. We look forward to seeing what he produces in Committee and when we consider the Bill on Report.
I am delighted to take part in the debate and to follow Derek Conway.
There is genuine cross-party support for the Bill, and that has been reflected in my constituency and, I am sure, in the constituencies of all other hon. Members. On the publication of the draft Bill, I consulted those of my constituents who had an interest in animal welfare issues, and asked for their opinions on the Bill. I am pleased to say that the majority of those people expressed their support for the measure. In line with many of the opinions that have been expressed in the debate so far, they had certain reservations and certain concerns, one of which was the issue of performing animals in circuses. I have questions about animal sanctuaries.
A number of the constituents to whom I spoke accept that there will be increases in penalties and punishments. A significant number of them—probably about half of those who expressed an opinion to me—wanted tougher penalties. They wanted prison sentences to be longer. They wanted fines to be higher and they wanted tougher disqualification from owning animals in future.
This relates to an issue raised earlier on the penalties issue, which concerns custody plus. The penalty of imprisonment could be reduced to about 13 weeks without custody plus. I understand that that is less than under current sentencing arrangements. We must consider this issue. My constituents are saying that the penalties should be greater, so that if we have custody plus people will be put away for what they consider to be a reasonable time.
I shall now discuss performing animals in circuses. My constituents have strong opinions on this issue. I found that 95 per cent. of people felt that the use of wild animals in circuses should be banned. Like other hon. Members, I share that view. Many years ago I served as a councillor on the same council as Mr. Ainsworth. It introduced one of the first bans in Britain on performing circuses on council land, and many local authorities followed suit by refusing to allow circuses to perform on council-owned land. The issue has therefore received strong support up and down the country for many years. MORI opinion polls consistently show that over 60 per cent. of people in Britain would like to ban performing animals in circuses.
Certainly, my constituents would wish to include them, given the way in which they can be trained. They have expressed concern about that, and I shall come to the issue of horses in circuses in a short while.
Last year, I took part in a peaceful protest against the use of wild animals in circuses when a circus visited Laceby in my constituency. Interestingly, it arrived on the 14th anniversary of the night on which four lions escaped from Chipperfield's circus on a nearby site in Grimsby, mauling a man and terrorising many local residents. My hon. Friend Ms Smith, who is from the area, probably remembers the incident in which lions marauded through Grimsby. They were subsequently caught. When I took part in that protest, many people who visited the circus were not interested in the animals—they were more interested in the acrobatic displays. However, after the show they were deeply concerned about what they had seen. One of my constituents was reported in my local newspaper, the Grimsby Telegraph, as saying:
"I help with horses and I noticed the horses had muzzles and the zebras appeared to be biting the horses . . . while the llamas seemed to me to be petrified. I thought it was cruel and I won't be coming again."
A large body of evidence collected by the Born Free Foundation, Animal Defenders International, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and others shows that a circus environment cannot provide for the needs of such animals. The transportation required and housing arrangements constrain their natural behaviour. The Secretary of State and other hon. Members have said that we were one of the first countries to introduce legislation to protect animals. However, we shall not be the first to introduce legislation to ban performing animals in circuses, because other countries have already done so. If they can do so, the majority of my constituents and I do not see why Britain cannot do so as well.
Briefly, on the subject of animal sanctuaries, Miss Widdecombe said that people can speak for themselves, but that animals cannot. There is, however, a breed of person who cannot speak for themselves in the Chamber—my hon. Friend Mr. Cawsey, who is a Whip. I shall be his voice tonight. I was a sponsor of the Animal Sanctuaries (Licensing) Bill, which he introduced in 2001. It would have provided for the licensing and inspection of animal sanctuaries, but he withdrew it when the Government made it clear that the issue would be addressed in the Animal Welfare Bill. I certainly welcome that, but I have a number of concerns. While the draft Bill proposed the licensing of larger sanctuaries and the registration of smaller ones, the Bill before us today no longer includes the licensing requirement. Instead, it proposes that sanctuaries should register with the local authority for a five-year period. Animal welfare organisations and I are concerned about that, as such a period between inspections may not be appropriate.
We must undertake work to define sanctuaries, and the new regulations must be put in place urgently.
The hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup mentioned problems in defining sanctuaries. What on earth is a sanctuary? If someone takes in a few cats because they like cats and they think that those cats are not being treated properly, are they running a sanctuary? We therefore need to clarify those definitions, and we also need a proper licensing system for sanctuaries. As I said when I intervened on the Secretary of State, the duty of care in the Bill will put more pressure on animal sanctuaries in future, so we should not leave that secondary legislation until a later date. We need to address the issue at an early stage, so that animals that have suffered from cruelty and have been taken into sanctuaries receive proper protection. The sanctuary sector is unregulated, so we should act speedily. Overall the Bill is welcome, and I support it, but I hope that the Government will take into account my concerns about circuses and sanctuaries.
Shona McIsaac follows a long succession of speakers in our debate, including her hon. Friend Paddy Tipping, who have taken a reasoned, sensible and well-informed approach to an often controversial and difficult subject. I very much welcome the tone of the debate. I entirely agree with most contributors, as I wholly support the principle underlying this excellent Bill, which has been a long time coming. I very much support the consultation and the debates that preceded it, as well as the work of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee on the draft Bill and so on. I shall return to that when I speak about the regulations.
It is easy for hon. Members to express heartfelt sentiments on the subject of animals. Our mailbags attest to the fact that our constituents have extremely strong feelings about the way in which we treat our animals. It is easy for us to stand up in the Chamber and express sugary, schmaltzy sentiments about the importance of animals to us. My goodness, that is true—there is no greater animal lover than I. However, we are not merely expressing wonderful sentiments about those animals; we are discussing the means by which we should protect them. After all, the English are the greatest animal lovers in the world, and we have some of the best law already in place. We want to make sure that we do not introduce law that does not work, is bad law, or which makes the lot of the animals that we are seeking to protect worse. Merely saying that we are concerned about those animals and must do something about the problem is not necessarily the right approach to legislation. In particular, there is confusion at the heart of this afternoon's debate. Most contributors—the hon. Member for Cleethorpes was typical in this respect—expressed strong views on subjects such as circuses, tail docking and animal sanctuaries. Many of us hold strong views about those issues, and most hon. Members and people across the nation would agree that it is probably not right to keep lions and tigers in a circus, because it is an entirely unnatural environment for them. However, we should think carefully about the subject of horses in circuses, as performing horses may well perform naturally and enjoy what they are doing. That is a matter for debate but, broadly speaking, we agree about the issues.
The Bill, however, does not deal with those issues, and that is the fundamental flaw of our debate. The Government are seeking to put in place the biggest Henry VIII measure that I have ever encountered. In it, they say that they do not have a particular view about tail docking. They know that it is controversial, and that some people, including myself, think that prophylactic docking is a good thing for working dogs but cosmetic docking may not be appropriate for other dogs. They know that that is what some people think, and that there are strong views on both sides of the argument. However, apart from giving hints in the documents that accompany the Bill, the Government say that they do not have a view. They have said that they are not entirely happy about animal sanctuaries although they do not intend to say anything about that during today's debate, but will put in place a mechanism by which to return to such issues later.
Both sides of those controversial arguments dislike that situation. Those of us who believe in prophylactic tail docking would like to see the Government's hints on the subject much more clearly spelled out. Those who are totally opposed to it—we have heard from many of them this afternoon—would equally say that the Bill should clearly specify what will happen when it becomes an Act. The Government seem to be seeking to kick many of these difficult, controversial and awkward issues and details into the long grass, and I do not accept that that is necessarily a good thing.
In that context, while welcoming all the consultation and discussion that we have had on the Bill in general during the last three or four years, I should like to be certain that when we come to a complex and difficult technical issue, such as whether to use horses in circuses or whether livery yards should be subject to the same regulation as riding schools, we have the same degree of consultation and discussion on each as we have had on the main Bill.
My hon. Friend Mr. Ainsworth made the extremely powerful point that our procedures for the consideration of statutory instruments are weak. They are considered for one and a half hours in Committee where Government Members do not speak, where no amendment is possible and where the measure is either passed or not, but because of the whipping system is extremely likely to be passed. Not once during many years has the House of Lords overturned such a measure, so if controversial or wrong measures were put through, the other place would not be able to correct them. That is an unsatisfactory mechanism for the consideration of matters that are technical, difficult and need to be considered carefully.
We have reached 2006 allowing tail docking and other animal practices because some people believe them to be good. Perhaps some hon. Members right now do not, but others do, and those matters should be considered carefully, not on the basis of sentiment or political pressure. We could not have a situation where the Secretary of State was under terrible pressure from his Back Benchers and so agreed to ban lions and tigers from circuses, or safari parks, which might be next, or zoos—or the many other things that could be banned, bowing to political pressure, sentimentality or anthropomorphism, doing something that he would not otherwise do and which might not necessarily be to the benefit of the animals themselves. I therefore have some concerns about the Bill's structure. It would be better if the Government could find a way of putting more on the face of the Bill.
A number of detailed and specific matters have not necessarily been thought through as carefully as they might. For example, there is the question of the ownership of animals. Under the law at the moment, the farmer owns a wild animal until such time as it has grown up, so baby foxes, badgers or deer on a farmer's land are owned by the farmer. As I read the Bill, the farmer would have a duty of care for such small animals until such time as they are grown up. The Minister shakes his head, but if he examines the Bill, I think that he will find that I am right. We need to refer to substantive ownership, rather than effective ownership.
The use of snares and live trapping have been mentioned. A magpie caught in a magpie box perfectly humanely would be in the ownership of the person who set up that box. Under the Bill, to what degree does that person have a duty of care to the magpie? Is shooting it sufficient, or do they have to look after it in some other way? The whole question of ownership needs to be examined carefully.
We have talked about mutilation in a variety of ways, and there are arguments on both sides of the case, although now may not be the time to air them all, but let us take it one stage further. It is extremely common practice in farming. For example, all sheep and pig tails are docked. It is considered to be good practice under the law. My hon. Friend Derek Conway, who for many years served as chief executive of the Cats Protection League, talked about docking, but virtually every dog and cat in the country is neutered. Is castration of a dog necessarily any worse than cutting off its tail? That could well be the position that we are moving towards. Mutilation is therefore not something to be talked about in light-hearted terms. One should consider carefully why it might be that gun dogs or other working dogs, such as terriers working underground—that is still allowed under legislation introduced last year—should be allowed to have their tails docked.
None of us supports animal fighting. That is one of the most vicious things and I welcome the Bill's clarification of the fact that that can no longer happen. But we need to be certain that the perfectly legitimate use of animals against other animals—particularly the use of terriers against rats and mice, which was acknowledged in a debate last year to be a perfectly acceptable use of a dog against another animal—is not inadvertently misunderstood.
It is important that we do not allow dogs, cats or other animals to be abandoned. I am a strong supporter of the important principle that dogs should be for life, not just for Christmas. But what about animals that are released back into the wild? A number of animal welfare organisations catch foxes in towns and release them in the countryside. Would they have care for those foxes? What about those people who are illegally shifting badgers, trying to disrupt the Krebs process? To what degree do they come under the Bill? What about the release of wild animals back into the wild? We all loved the films about Keiko the whale and Elsa the lioness who were released back into the wild. There are a variety of ways in which animals are released back into the wild.
We need to think carefully about the issue of abandonment and precisely what that means. There is a particular problem with regard to horses. The International League for the Protection of Horses, an outstandingly good organisation, has raised with me the fact that, because of a number of changes in horse legislation recently, there may be an increased tendency towards the abandonment of horses. The precise way in which the regulations affect that disgraceful practice must be looked at extremely carefully.
Those and a number of other areas are inadequately addressed in the Bill, which has been structured in such a way that almost no one could object to it on principle. As has been said, most of its measures are demonstrable goods, but inside the fine print there is a significant risk that the end result for many types of animals would be significantly worse than it is today.
The Government should not take part in legislative idleness. They should be ready to address these difficult issues of circuses, animal welfare, animal sanctuaries and docking. They are difficult, complex and technical matters that the Government should be ready to address in debate, not kick into the long grass and leave to a Statutory Instrument Committee at some dim and distant date in the future. From the point of view of those who believe that some practices should be allowed in order to protect animals, and from the point of view of those who believe strongly that those practices should be outlawed, we should take the opportunity of this Bill today and in the months that lie ahead to address those issues for real, not merely to hide behind the fact that at some stage in the future we may or may not introduce regulations to deal with them.
I have a fundamental difficulty with the Bill's structure. The Government should address the issues up front and be much bolder in their approach. I hope that in Committee and on Report they will be ready to do just that.
I am delighted to take part in the debate. We have all made comments about the late Tony Banks. I am sure that he would have some comments about those pleasantries, which he would express in his own inimitable way. I hope that the Bill will to some extent be a memorial to his wonderful work in the House on animal welfare.
This is a substantial Bill. Some say that it should go further in the sense of, as Mr. Gray said, clarifying some of the issues that we have debated, but there is some merit in keeping the Bill reasonably lean. I am interested less in the regulatory impact assessment than in the codes of practice. I hope that, if I am selected to serve on the Committee, we will have the opportunity to hear from the Minister what real authority will lie behind the codes of practice. In some respects that will test whether the legislation will be as effective as some of us want it to be. Like my hon. Friend Paddy Tipping, I earnestly hope that the Government are brave in Committee and on Report.
Although I am not a "banner" by inclination, the Government must make the matter clear. Even if they do not spell out the position in the Bill, they should clarify the situation through their subsequent use of the regulatory process. The issues raised by tail docking, electric collars, pet fairs and circuses, and arising from the treatment of crustaceans, cephalopods, game birds and greyhounds cannot be wished away, and those are just the subjects that hon. Members have mentioned today. If the Government do not want to make their position clear in Committee, they must set out how they will revisit those issues and what they intend to do. As my hon. Friend Mr. Martlew said, there is merit in keeping the Bill flexible, and Miss Widdecombe also referred to the advantages of flexibility. We cannot do everything immediately, although some of us want to.
In passing, I congratulate the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee on its work. I am a member of the Committee, but I was ill during some of the pre-legislative scrutiny, which the Government have pioneered and which has proved its worth in this case.
I welcome the redefinition of cruelty. Unlike Tony Baldry, I think that the Bill clarifies the concept of cruelty in relation to abandonment, neglect and mental cruelty, although those points may require further explanation through challenges in the courts. The Bill contains clear legal judgments that will help us to define how to attack cruelty, and although the five freedoms that form the basis of the duty of care will be tested, we have got a good Bill to fall back on.
I pay tribute to the RSPCA, which is clear—this point was borne out by recent briefings—that cruelty is a growing problem. It is difficult to prosecute people under the current legislation, but the number of cases in which the RSPCA is involved is increasing. In her excellent speech, the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald discussed how different organisations have faced up to that trend, and it is good to be on the same side as her in that regard, if not in all regards.
The RSPCA supports the legislation because of the problems that it faces. Whatever fine words we use in this House, what happens on the ground is most important in the long run. If nothing else, I hope that we can amend the ridiculous idea that a RSPCA inspector must make 25 visits to the most awful cases in order to prosecute someone due to the worst excesses of ownership or the neglect of ownership. The RSPCA inspectors with whom I have been out would welcome clear guidance on the grounds on which they can enter a property, and they are looking forward to the Bill's enactment at the earliest opportunity.
I urge the Government to examine the Veterinary Surgeons Act 1966, which is parallel legislation to the Bill, because I regularly talk to vets, who want their particular powers to be updated. No doubt the DEFRA team will argue for such an examination as part of the future legislative programme. Vets need their powers, which need to be brought into the 21st century, to be clarified in areas such as charging and responsibility.
Concerns have been expressed in the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee about the custody and control of animals, and I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will put on the record that the Government are sure, having listened to the Committee, that the wording will clarify the issue. Hon. Members have discussed some of the problems, and I shall raise another: given bovine TB, what would happen if someone wants to adopt a friendly badger? What would be that badger's status if there were a subsequent cull, which might cover a wider area than some of us might want? Such test cases must be thought through very carefully.
My hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood has covered some of the issues associated with shooting and fishing, on which various organisations will want the Standing Committee to test the impact of the Bill. The Government have made it clear that they do not want the Bill to impact on shooting and fishing, but the matter will undoubtedly be debated. I am against snaring as a form of animal control, and I hope that we clarify what is allowable—I know where I stand on that issue.
The Bill will have cost implications for local authorities, which will take on additional responsibilities, and for the RSPCA. Perhaps we will get some figures about the real cost of the Bill on Third Reading.
In conclusion, I hope that the Bill is passed tonight without a vote, which would send a signal to people who want to see the implementation of animal welfare legislation that the House can act unanimously, even if differences and disagreements subsequently arise over the detail. The devil will be in the detail, but this is the right time to introduce the Bill. I congratulate the Government on introducing the Bill and hope that some of the difficult issues are clarified in subsequent debates.
As hon. Members will know, I am the proud owner of Buster, a two-year-old Staffordshire bull terrier. Buster's welfare is fully provided for. He is well fed, well exercised, has a vet when he needs one, and is microchipped. Overall, he has a very comfortable existence.
As a nation of animal lovers, one would assume that most people in the United Kingdom would treat animals in a similar way. Since my election as a Member of Parliament, I have often supported charities and organisations that strive to improve animal welfare in foreign countries, assuming that the problem of animal cruelty was more urgent elsewhere—abroad rather than at home. Sadly, however, it does not take much effort to find a lot of evidence of unacceptable animal cruelty and maltreatment taking place here in Britain. One has only to open a newspaper to see a report detailing stomach-churning atrocities committed by human beings on animals.
In the past few years, the media have reported many acts of cruelty that are so despicable as to be almost beyond belief. The Sun recently drew attention to the plight of Spot, a Dalmatian found hanged from a tree by thugs. In August 2003, a particularly vile individual physically bit the head off a kitten at a barbecue. In Colwyn Bay last year, a rabbit was snatched from a children's farm at a zoo and thrown into the alligator house next door. In the space of two days in September 2005, a cat was thrown from a bridge on to the M6, another cat was found decapitated in Gloucester, and more than 100 cats were found dead in a house in Leeds. Even in my own constituency, last year a small dog called Harry was, for no apparent reason, beaten to death with a broom handle by an intruder and left in a pool of blood, causing untold distress to that family in Romford.
Such offences are so inhumane that one almost cannot believe that they could possibly occur in our country—but they did, and they are not isolated cases. It emerges from the Bill's regulatory impact assessment that in 2004 the RSPCA rescued or picked up more than 150 animals, answered more than 1.1 million telephone calls and investigated more than 100,000 cruelty cases. The neglect of animals is clearly a growing problem, with cases of ill-treatment rising by 78 per cent. in 2004 on the previous year. Current legislation seems powerless to deal with it. Also in 2004, only 870 people were found guilty of offences under the Protection of Animals Act 1911.
So many people seem to be getting away with acts of cruelty, and so few are punished. A perfect example of animal cruelty occurring on a weekly basis is the abhorrent practice of dog fighting. The RSPCA estimates that this barbaric act is staged by more than 100 people on a regular basis. The dogs are trained on treadmills, often with live pets shackled just out of reach of their jaws as an enticement for the animal to keep running. The dogs' jaws are strengthened by forcing them to bite tyres and wooden sticks, while their bodies are primed with the aid of steroids. Their trainers turn these animals into killing machines before throwing them into combat with other dogs, the contest finishing only when one dog can no longer fight. If a dog flees, it will be killed. The animals are brave and vicious, so injuries sustained to the head, neck and front limbs are horrific, often including crushed and broken bones and torn-off ears. Because of their owners' fear of being reported, the dogs are not even allowed proper medical attention to their wounds. If a dog somehow manages to remain alive following a fight, it may well die subsequently as a result of its injuries. The owners of these dogs seem to see themselves as coaches and their animals as warriors that they are training for gladiatorial combat. The reality is that they are animal abusers—a minority of thugs who subject animals to a doomed existence of violence, pain and inevitable death. The lives of these dogs are allowed to be destroyed purely so that a minority of sick spectators can get their kicks and have a bet.
Under existing laws, the penalty for partaking in dog fighting is just six months' jail or a fine of £5,000. After a three-year RSPCA investigation, the nine men and a woman prosecuted were handed puny jail sentences of no more than four months, a conditional discharge, and community service orders for offences associated with pit bull ownership. Those people, who were responsible for such abuse of dogs, were given a completely inadequate punishment under current legislation. That must change, and it is a key reason why I fully support the Bill. The penalty will be increased to 51 weeks' jail or a £20,000 fine, or both. It will be illegal to arrange an animal fight, to take bets on an animal fight, and to be present at an animal fight. The increased penalty, combined with the new laws, will place a far heavier deterrent on this savage blood sport, which truly belongs in the dark ages. However, I should like to voice the concern, which I share with the RSPCA, that it is not an offence under the Bill to be in possession of dog-fighting paraphernalia. We have a duty to do our best to eradicate this foul practice, and that is an issue that the Minister should address.
As many hon. Members will know, particularly those who are members of the all-party greyhound group, we have in my constituency a first-class greyhound stadium, and many Romford residents regularly enjoy a night out at the dogs. Last year, I was honoured to accompany Lady Thatcher on her visit to the stadium, where the noble Baroness watched the lunch time races and was introduced to two of the winning greyhounds.
Nevertheless, there is grave concern over the plight of many greyhounds once their racing career is over. About 35,000 greyhounds are at racing strength at any given time, beginning their racing life at 16 months, but usually finishing before the age of three. As a result, 9,000 greyhounds cease to race every year. Despite valiant efforts by the Retired Greyhound Trust, which re-homes about 3,000 dogs, and locally based groups such as the Romford Greyhound Owners Association, little information is available about what happens to the remaining animals. The industry is self-regulating. It wishes to sustain that arrangement because of the huge income that is generated, but the system has proved open to abuse, and in the absence of consistent monitoring of any dog's whereabouts, animals can end up being disposed of ruthlessly.
Although virtually all those involved in the greyhound industry are animal lovers, there are exceptions, and I am sure that most of the industry will appreciate the extended protection that the Bill provides to dogs. It will legally enforce many of the practices undertaken by those within the industry. It will ensure that those owning greyhounds provide a safe home for them; if they do not, the consequences will be severe. With increased power, the RSPCA will be able to intervene earlier, and potentially save the lives of thousands of greyhounds.
So far, I have spoken of the plight of fighting dogs and greyhounds. Any Bill that helped to protect those animals would be commendable and have my full support, but this Bill covers many other areas and reaches beyond the protection of dogs. It also provides legally binding protection for non-farmed animals so that their welfare is assured as much as that of farmed animals. Farm welfare legislation allows earlier intervention on grounds of poor welfare, so it is simple common sense to align the welfare of non-farmed animals. The Bill will reduce animal suffering by enabling preventive action to be taken before more suffering occurs, replacing the current outdated legislation that allows only small punishments to be enforced once the act of cruelty has been committed.
The Bill ensures that animal owners take responsibility and simultaneously helps to make sure that only responsible people are in a position to look after animals in the first place. By increasing from 12 to 16 the minimum age at which a child may buy an animal, and prohibiting giving pets as prizes to unaccompanied children under the age of 16, the Bill prevents irresponsible minors from being responsible for an animal's life.
The Bill will also help open the door for future welfare measures, while deterring persistent offenders by strengthening penalties and eliminating many loopholes in the system. By punishing cruelty and mutilation and enhancing law enforcement for animal welfare offences, we can ensure that an animal's experience of life is of the highest quality.
The outdated language, confusing ambiguities and frustrating loopholes of the 1911 Act will no longer stand in the way of the safety of our animals. Those who neglect their duty of care will not be allowed to own animals—a proposal that merits complete support.
Let us prove that we are a nation of animal lovers by supporting the Bill.
I am in the rare position of agreeing with almost every word of a speech by Andrew Rosindell. It was fascinating to hear that Lady Thatcher had been going to the dogs for years—I wonder whether that started before or after 1979.
As a member of the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs since 2001, I witnessed the genesis of the Bill at close quarters. When we consider content, flexibility and process, the Government are to be congratulated on the way in which the measure has been introduced. Admittedly, it happened over a long period and examining the Bill in draft form took a great deal of time and energy. However, that was worth while given the improvements to the measure.
I want to refer briefly to four subjects: horse welfare, cephalopods, duty of care and tail docking. Tethering horses is one of the most common equine welfare issues with which RSPCA inspectors deal, affecting more than 3,500 horses in 2004 alone. By the time there is evidence of suffering to provide legal grounds for action, the horses have often sustained significant or even fatal injuries. Current law does not allow for intervention before cruelty can be proved and I am pleased that progress has been made on that. If animals are to be tethered, it should be only a temporary measure and done in such a way that the animal's welfare is protected. Tethering also affects dogs so a code of practice to back up preventive laws and stronger penalties for animal cruelty would be useful in ending the excessive and cruel reliance on tethering animals such as horses and dogs.
North-West Leicestershire is a former mining area that is now at the heart of the national forest and close to several former fox hunting groups. As I expected, equine activity is expanding at a rapid rate in the wake of the ban on fox hunting. There are increasing numbers of livery yards in my constituency and throughout England and Wales. It is estimated that there are between 7,000 and 10,000, covering a wide variety of activities, providing from accommodation and full care to simply a paddock and a stable. Livery yards are not regulated and I am pleased that the Government propose to extend licensing arrangements to them.
It appears that the Government will allow livery licences to cover more than 12 months. That runs counter to the Select Committee's conclusions on the Department's proposals. We did not support the proposal to introduce licence periods of more than 12 months because it
"would reduce the frequency with which business or premises would be inspected, and would therefore not promote the highest standards of animal welfare because it would increase the period of time during which breaches of legislation could go undetected."
I therefore regret that provision. However, I welcome the Government's proposal to license livery yards and I would add a provision to make licences renewable every 12 months on the ground of welfare.
Licences for riding establishments should not be extended from a year to 18 months. Again, that increases the risk of animal neglect and cruelty going undetected. The responsibility for inspecting riding establishments should not be passed to local authorities. Although I am a strong supporter of local authorities, I do not detect the necessary knowledge and professionalism that would allow them to carry out that specific regulatory activity satisfactorily.
Clause 1 does not include cephalopods, for example, octopuses, or decapod crustaceans, such as, lobsters and crabs, in the definition of "animal". The Bill therefore gives them no protection. The Select Committee took the issue seriously in our pre-legislative scrutiny. We said that we believed that a strong case had been made for the inclusion of octopuses, crabs and lobsters in the definition of "animal". There is continuing research in the field—perhaps more than was believed to be the case.
Our report shows that cephalopods and decapod crustaceans have a nervous system and that there is considerable similarity between the nervous systems of vertebrates and those of cephalopods and decapod crustaceans. As I said earlier, cephalopods have complex brain and sense organs that rival those of vertebrates. Indeed, a report to the Norwegian Scientific Committee for Food Safety described them as some of the most advanced in the animal kingdom. I was therefore pleased to receive an assurance from the Secretary of State that, as science advances, the flexibility in the Bill may be used to widen the definition of "animal" satisfactorily.
Strong neurochemical and behavioural evidence shows that cephalopods and decapod crustaceans can experience pain and stress. For example, their opioid systems, which are involved in pain relief and response to injury, appear to function in the same way as in vertebrates. Those animals clearly try to avoid painful or aversive situations or objects. That constitutes substantial evidence that they should be treated as animals. Some experiments on those categories of animal, which I shall now call them, are based on the assumption that they can experience pain. Electric shocks are used as an aversive stimulus.
Octopuses are intelligent animals that display a wide range of complex and flexible behaviour, including problem solving, tool use and play. They are capable of associative and even observational learning and have individual responses and temperaments. Decapod crustaceans have the ability to learn, discriminate about their environment, remember and form stable social hierarchies.
Scientists from Bristol university and the Silsoe institute have developed a humane electric stunner called the "crustastun". [Interruption.] I can understand hon. Members finding that slightly humorous but the scientists would not have done that if they did not believe that crustaceans can experience pain.
Evidence in the "Advocates for Animals" report shows that those animals are capable of experiencing pain and suffering. In the light of that and pursuant to the precautionary principle, I believe that cephalopods and decapod crustaceans should be included in the Bill's definition of "animal".
At the heart of the Bill is the first major leap forward for 95 years. In a sense, that gives the lie to the oft-cited description of Britain as a nation of animal lovers. It has taken that long to make the huge leap forward that constitutes the welfare offence that the measure introduces. As I said earlier, under current law, the animal has to suffer before action can be taken to improve its situation and prosecute its owner. However, the new offence—which will be supported by the Government's codes of practice to provide animal owners with the information that they need to ensure that they are delivering the right level of care—has the potential to make a real difference to the lives of many thousands of domestic and captive animals in England and Wales.
For the purposes of the new welfare offence, the Bill will oblige the owner of an animal to do what is reasonable to meet its needs, involving the five criteria of environment, diet, behaviour patterns, housing, and protection from pain, injury and disease. It is important that the Government make it clear that the offence does not impose an unqualified or absolute obligation on those responsible for an animal. It requires only that they do what is reasonable to meet the animal's needs. This will help to answer the detractors of this legislation, who, although not large in number, have been very voluble recently.
My final point is on tail docking. The Government intend to introduce an exemption from the ban for the tail docking of dogs that are likely to be working dogs, on the ground that they are particularly prone to injury. I am pleased that the exemption of entire breeds of working dogs is no longer being considered. I regard such an exemption as utterly unjustifiable, as very few dogs within those breeds actually work, in any real sense of the term. The Select Committee concluded that
"tail docking in dogs should be banned for cosmetic reasons. Tail docking should continue to be permitted for therapeutic reasons where it is in an animal's best welfare interests."
Many animal welfare campaigning organisations and individuals urge that any exemption on tail docking in dogs should be delayed for at least two years in order to gather evidence of the real extent of the necessity for tail docking in working dogs because of injury, compared with the circumstances involving non-working dogs. The issues that should be examined during that research period include whether the incidence of tail injury in working dogs is any greater than in non-working dogs; whether the injuries sustained could be adequately addressed by methods less severe than tail amputation; whether the injuries could be reduced or avoided by other measures such as tail trimming or working the dogs in different terrain; whether, as a DEFRA paper on this topic suggests, careful breeding might result in naturally shorter tails; and whether less vulnerable breeds of dog could be used in terrain particularly likely to cause tail injury.
I warmly welcome the Bill. I have been a lifetime campaigner on animal welfare issues, and I am very pleased to be a member of the Select Committee. There are other issues that we would like to see addressed: shock collars and goads should be restricted to use in the Government Whips Office, for example, and I regret that there are no planned improvements for the conditions of farmed animals. Apart from that, however, I believe that the Bill is a worthwhile and long overdue piece of legislation.
First, I would like to say how pleased I am to be taking part in what has been an excellent debate on both sides of the House. The Bill represents a significant step forward in the cause of improving animal welfare, and I particularly welcome the new duty of care that all animal owners will now have to demonstrate, and the welfare offence associated with it. Some concern has been expressed, in the light of the events of the past few days, that the Liberal Democrats do not take seriously the duty of welfare, especially towards creatures in distress. However, I can assure the House that we are fully committed to a duty of welfare, at least when it comes to animals.
I am fascinated by what the hon. Gentleman has to say about his own party. He need not be over-sensitive, however, because the Bill applies only to vertebrates.
Luckily, we are not particularly sensitive, as I think we have proved. I shall ignore the hon. Gentleman's comments, which is what they deserve.
Last summer I paid my first visit to the Yorkshire animal shelter, which is in my constituency. Like many other such shelters up and down the country, it is run solely by volunteers. It takes in animals ranging from cats and rabbits to ponies and goats. The majority of the shelter's work involves taking in animals that have been abandoned by their owners. The shelter is, like many others, in a very difficult situation. It receives no public funding and is constantly full to capacity.
The shelter manager tells me that, every week, it receives between 50 and 100 animals that have been abandoned. However, it simply does not have the capacity to deal with them all. To its credit, it manages to rehouse between 25 and 30 of those animals every week, which is a tremendous achievement considering the limited resources of the operation.
This illustrates a serious national problem. The RSPCA investigated complaints of the abandonment of 14,311 animals between December 2004 and November 2005. Yet in 2004, the organisation managed to secure just 88 convictions. From those figures, we can estimate that the number of abandoned domestic pets nationally must total thousands every week. The problem of abandoned animals is one of the biggest animal welfare issues in the country, yet it is not even a grey area in the Bill. Rather, there is a gaping hole where any provisions on it should be. The Bill at last introduces the duty of care of an animal's owner to ensure its welfare. I am sure that we all agree that that is the most positive measure in the Bill, and it will make a difference to many of the animals looked after by people in this country. However, the Bill does not address the problem of abandoned animals.
The Bill repeals and replaces the Abandonment of Animals Act 1960. This was discussed by the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, in regard to what was then clause 3(3) of the draft Bill. I am sorry to say, however, that that provision has been removed. The Committee's recommendations stated that
"we recommend that the Government amend the draft Bill so that the act of abandoning an animal continues to be treated as a cruelty offence without the need for evidence of the animal having suffered as a consequence of abandonment."
Unfortunately, the Government did not agree that that would be necessary. They claimed in their response to the Committee:
"Under the welfare offence in the Bill, an offence will be committed if an animal is abandoned, and the abandonment amounts to a failure to take all responsible steps to meet the needs of the animals concerned."
That is ridiculous. How could abandonment not amount to such a failure? Perhaps the answer would be popping a tin of cat food in the sack as it is left outside the gate, or leaving a "happy new home" card attached to a dog's collar as it is left to roam the streets?
The explanatory notes attempt to clarify this matter. They state:
"anyone who leaves an animal without taking reasonable steps to ensure that it is capable of fending for itself and living independently will commit an offence under clause 8".
Are the Government seriously arguing that a domestic pet can, in any circumstances, be released to live independently as a stray or in the wild? The Minister may nod his head, but the reality of the Bill is that abandonment will not in itself be an offence. In fact, anyone who abandons an animal in the right way will have no problem at all. This omission gives the impression—and possibly even a case to be argued in court—that, so long as someone leaves an animal near a sanctuary or a refuge, they will not be doing anything wrong. What kind of message is that? It will certainly be received with heavy heart by the many excellent organisations attempting to tackle the problem of abandoned animals. Abandonment of domestic pets is wrong. To omit that from the Bill is to fail to face up to one of the most serious and under-reported problems of animal welfare in the country.
Undoubtedly, abandonment is cruel, but how would the hon. Gentleman trace the owner of an abandoned animal, in order to bring a prosecution, without any form of identification? Is he suggesting the chipping of all domestic pets?
The hon. Gentleman has pre-empted part of my speech. He makes a fair point, to which I will refer later.
The offence of abandonment must be treated as a specific issue and problem, and it must therefore be highlighted in the Bill. Ultimately, the organisations involved know that the problem of abandoned animals will be eased only when both the supply of animals is better controlled and the responsibilities of the owner better defined and enforced. In terms of supply, therefore, I welcome the provision in the Bill raising the age at which people can buy pets to 16. The law contains a worrying loophole, however, whereby it will still be perfectly legal to allow animals to be given away free with animal-keeping equipment. That is the kind of issue that needs to be addressed. The issue of prizes has also been mentioned. We need to address those matters, tighten up the licensing of pet shops and move with the times to include the internet. I welcome the fact that that will be dealt with in secondary legislation, which I hope will be introduced soon.
To echo the comments of Miss Widdecombe, more emphasis should be placed on educating people as to their responsibilities in owning an animal. How effective will the new duty of care be if owners are not legally obliged or educated to understand what their legal obligation is to ensure that pets will be both properly nourished and housed and have access to proper care where necessary? If that is not communicated at the point of purchase, it becomes irrelevant. I would only disagree with her in that I believe that it is possible, albeit in a limited way, to legislate to do that. I welcome annexe E of the regulatory impact assessment report, which suggests that pet vendors should have to issue a compulsory standard document to anyone purchasing an animal from them, outlining the responsibilities of owning that animal. As has been outlined, there have been serious situations in which people have simply not understood what is involved in owning even a cat or dog.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point, with which I thoroughly agree. That is potentially a way in which the Government can at least signal what they believe constitutes responsible pet ownership, whether in relation to neutering, pet insurance or microchipping. That sort of advice is vital when people first get their pet.
I thank the hon. Lady for that helpful intervention, which brings me on to the issue of microchipping.
I know that microchipping is a potentially divisive issue, but it is time that the House took it seriously. At the moment, I am afraid that the Bill shies away from it. Microchips cause absolutely no harm to animals and are already used by the RSPCA, Cats Protection and many smaller organisations. Back in 2000, the Government-sponsored dog identification working group recommended that a system of microchipping should be introduced and that 75 per cent. of dogs could be registered within five years. I am sorry that that recommendation was not taken up. It is regrettable, and it leads to the situation in which the Yorkshire animal shelter and similar organisations still find themselves today.
So much of the suffering of animals is unnecessary as well as disgraceful. I applaud the Bill for tackling many aspects of the problem. The Bill does not sufficiently address the suffering of abandoned animals, however, which begins the moment that they are abandoned. While, broadly, I welcome the Bill, it must be considered thoroughly. We must reintroduce a clause specifically outlawing the abandonment of domestic animals. We must properly tackle the ongoing problem of the irresponsible supply of pets. We must do more to educate people, including introducing some form of compulsory information at the point of purchase.
Broadly, the Bill is good and contains many provisions that will make a huge difference to animal welfare, to which I am proud to add my support. I am also pleased to have had this opportunity to point out an area in which the Bill is inadequate, however, and I hope that the Government will listen and address that before the legislation is finalised.
It is a great pleasure and privilege to speak in this debate, which is one of the best that I have heard for quite a long time.
Miss Widdecombe was perhaps being diplomatic when she said that many members of the public do not put animal welfare high on their agenda of importance. She was perhaps too kind as, unfortunately, a large swathe of the population are completely indifferent to animal welfare, which is very sad. We have three categories of people. There are those in the middle, whom she described so well. There are those who are ardent supporters of treating animals—farm animals, companion animals or any animals—with respect, consideration and kindness. At the other end of the spectrum is a very small minority who treat animals cruelly, sometimes through intent and sometimes through indifference. The end result is the same, however—the suffering of an animal.
I am pleased that the Bill has been introduced. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said that it had taken four years to prepare. It has been worth it. Most people, despite some reservations, will think that it has been four years well spent. Few of those who have been eagerly awaiting the Bill for some time will be disappointed overall.
Importantly, the Bill recognises that society has a problem that will not just be put right by legislation. We will only put right the problem in society through education and changing the culture. That is one of the things that legislation can do. If we legislate to say that, no matter what the circumstances, a certain thing will be considered illegal, people will end up accepting that, there will not be any doubt, and we will start to bring about improvement.
We have heard some harrowing tales of animal cruelty, and the RSPCA says that in some areas it is getting worse. In my part of the country, Sunderland, there have been some deplorable instances. Against that, a growing number of people who are not necessarily animal owners will not accept that animals should be treated in such a way, from which we should take hope. Our prognostication should not be gloomy, because things can be improved. I heard it stated in a previous debate that many people look at life and say, "That's the way things are. You can't do much about it." That is not true. Over the years, politically, we have seen many changes take place, although perhaps not to as great an extent as we would like in animal welfare. Changes have taken place, however, and things can therefore be made better.
I want to take exception to one or two issues. First, I do so on my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State's position on tail docking, which the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald was the first to describe correctly as mutilation. The term was used once or twice after that, but she was the first one to use it, and she is exactly right because that is what it is.
I am disappointed to hear from the Dispatch Box justifications for doing nothing on the ground that the same views are held sincerely on both sides. That is not exactly the nub of political action. No one denies that people are well-intentioned and sincere, but sometimes they are wrong. Tail docking is an example. It is deplorable and unacceptable that the small minority represented by dog breeders, those who show dogs and those who organise dog shows can bring about a degree of mutilation that I do not think the public accept. Moreover, no good argument has been presented for docking the tails of so-called working dogs. There is a view in its favour, but it does not seem to have been substantiated by any scientific evidence. I should have been much happier if the Government had expressed an intention of doing away with that deplorable practice.
I am, however, pleased that we have been promised a free vote—as are the Anti-Docking Alliance, the League Against Cruel Sports, the Dogs Trust, the British Veterinary Association and the People's Dispensary for Sick Animals. It is fair to assume that that is because they think that a free vote will lead to abolition of the reprehensible practice of tail docking. Nothing that causes pain should be done to any animal unless there is some justification for it. It is bad enough when it can be justified, but when there is no justification it borders on evil.
Two Members mentioned the 9,000 greyhounds that go out of service each year. Many excellent organisations try to rehouse them, and they do a good job, but it does not always work. Let us not forget that greyhounds are working animals and that a lot of money is involved in the greyhound industry. It seems to me not unreasonable for every greyhound owner to be required to register his dog, and for greyhounds that are to be disposed of to be found homes or humanely or properly destroyed by vets. There should be no more of the business of dogs being weighed down and thrown into rivers, because it is barbaric.
Unfortunately, the tail end—excuse the pun—of the dog track organisations is not particularly well thought of in that regard. We hear a great deal of anecdotal evidence about cruelty to greyhounds. If a greyhound cannot run, if it cannot make money, if it is not a winner, many people decide that it must be disposed of because it is worth nothing. We do not do such things in a civilised society; we look for a better way of going about matters. There should be a proper registration system, and proper obligations. I know that the greyhound industry has some good systems in place, and I understand that in 2008 the Government will introduce regulations involving the industry. I hope that they will subject every dog track to statutory legislation. Self-regulation is possible, but if it is to work there must be a proper code of practice. The Government have an important task to perform in that respect.
I want to say something about tethering and snaring. Snaring is a very emotional subject. I consider it intolerable that in this day and age we should snare animals in any circumstances, but let me issue a challenge to those who claim that the practice is acceptable. Until it can be proved that no animal is ever caused unnecessary pain and suffering as a result of snaring, intentionally or otherwise, it should be banned. If someone can demonstrate a humane system of snaring under which the wrong animal will never be snared, no animal will be caught in the wrong way and no unnecessary pain will be suffered, I just might be prepared to modify my views; but I am not prepared to do so now. I ask Ministers to examine the issue, although I accept that this is a very fine Bill—one of the best that we have seen. It has been long awaited, it is comprehensive and it is very much a modernising Bill. I use that term in the proper sense, not in the new Labour sense. The word "modernisation" regains its pleasant tone when applied to something worthwhile like the Bill, rather than to a measure that takes us down the wrong road, as some measures do.
Tethering is another deplorable practice that should not be allowed. People who own animals should be allowed to enclose them and keep them safely, but not tether them—not least because tethering means that an animal is captive and prey to predators. I remember the heart-rending plight of a pet donkey in a village near where I lived some years ago. It was very well loved and spent much of its time with small children, but it was tethered and it was butchered by some thugs. We shall never know what might have happened if it had not been tethered, but it would have had a much better chance of not being butchered. If animals must be kept, they should be kept in proper, enclosed premises. They do not need to be tethered. What they need is some freedom so that they can protect themselves, even if that means running away.
Bill Etherington mentioned greyhounds. I agreed with much of what he said. I shall say something about the subject towards the end of my speech, although I shall reach slightly different conclusions because I have slightly different views on the industry.
As an animal lover, I support the Bill. My hon. Friend Andrew Rosindell has his dog Buster and, previously, his dog Spike; I have my cats Boris and Barney, although they are not as ambitious as Buster and Spike, who have received plenty of publicity. I think that we are all animal lovers, which is why we support the Bill and why there is a broad consensus on it. I believe, however, that some elements are flawed.
I support the Bill because it moves away from a narrow definition of cruelty. It is more welfare orientated, and is designed to ensure that there is a duty of care. The 1911 Act consolidated a number of 19th century Acts. This 2006 Bill faces a great challenge: to last, and to support the rising standards of welfare over time rather than simply addressing today's needs.
The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, of which I have the honour to be a member, considered the Government's response to the pre-legislative scrutiny that took place before my election. That showed me the value of Select Committees, and I believe that my Committee can play a greater role in overcoming some of the problems of secondary legislation.
I recognise that this is an enabling Bill. I asked Norman Baker why he wanted to propose so many amendments. He may believe that they will allow the enabling legislation to become broader. I do not think that that will happen, but if he intends to table probing amendments, I think that that is a good idea. It is only through the prism of the various issues such as tail docking and circus animals that we can make sense of the legislation and establish whether it will work.
I hesitate to mention my father, because when I quote him people always assume that he is dead, whereas he is very much alive. However, he told me that the devil is in the detail—and in the Bill the devil is the question of how we will deal with secondary legislation. If we did not raise all the individual issues and consider how the Bill will be translated into secondary legislation, we might be subjected to fair criticism. The public would accuse us of leaving aside the hard decisions, as the DEFRA Select Committee put it. I am happy that secondary legislation will be subject to the affirmative procedure, but I am concerned and surprised that, rather like other codes, the farm codes, which date from the Agriculture (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1968, will go from the affirmative procedure to the negative procedure.
I must admit that I am very unimpressed with the regulatory impact assessment, which I believe the Under-Secretary has to sign, but it must be said that a number of such assessments of Bills are not entirely satisfactory. I am particularly concerned about the extra long-term pressures that this regulation will put on councils such as Southend, which is already underfunded. Secondary legislation is likely to impose even greater responsibilities on councils. This issue was raised during pre-legislative scrutiny, but it has not been sufficiently dealt with.
I welcome the inclusion of clause 10, which obliges the Government to consult the "appropriate national authority", but I am concerned that that is too broad a definition. Perhaps we should extend the obligation to regional authorities, particularly devolved Assemblies, and a number of interest groups also want to contribute to the process. I appreciate that the Government cannot extend the terms of the clause too widely, but extending them would assist the secondary legislation process.
There is no duty on the Government to look at the science and the facts behind the decisions that they are taking, which concerns me. Animal welfare is a particularly emotive subject. When someone says, "This is an animal welfare issue", almost all of us think, "Such a view must be right." However, there are people on both sides of the fence examining animal welfare issues, and not all objections made on the basis of animal welfare are right. Members in all parts of the House doubtless received briefings on this issue from various organisations. Some were very good; others were very emotive and lacked scientific fact. My worry is that during the secondary legislation process, the Government and members of the Committee will be swayed by emotive and impassioned pleas, rather than by science.
I am also worried about the likely pace of introduction of secondary legislation. I implore the Under-Secretary to consider quality, rather than sticking rigidly to the timetable. Matters such as riding schools, livery yards, cat and other animal homes, pet shops, pet fairs, mutilations and the tethering of horses must all be dealt with and legislated on, according to the current timetable, before the end of 2007. That might prove a little too much to take on, given that the current situation has evolved over time since 1911. It is more important that we get this legislation right than that we simply to get it on to the statute book.
Does my hon. Friend accept that one danger associated with secondary legislation is that it cannot be amended? Unless Ministers get it right before it even reaches this place, we have only two options: approval or rejection. In many cases, the law of unintended consequences applies even more strongly to regulations than to statute. All too often, the unintended consequence is that the people who are trying to implement, with the best will and with the best of intention, the purpose behind the legislation are damaged.
My hon. Friend makes a very good point, and I am worried about the degree of scrutiny. Members of the Select Committee have pointed out to me privately that Select Committees in general could be more helpful in examining draft codes and regulations before they go through the legislative process. That said, I defer to my hon. Friend's knowledge of matters of this House.
On animal welfare, there is always a balance to be struck between the benefits to the animal and civil liberties. We have heard the term "nanny state" used several times today. I consider myself something of a libertarian and I believe that people should do as they please. But when there is an animal on one side of the debate and a human being on the other—when the situation is finely balanced and we are having difficulty deciding—I believe that we should side with the interests of the animal, even when the status quo goes the other way. The Government should be slightly bolder on tail docking for cosmetic purposes, for example, even if they intend to be slightly more cautious when considering working dogs. I have tried to engage with this issue and both sides of the argument have their merits, but on balance, in cases involving tail docking for cosmetic purposes we must side with the animal.
I come to greyhound racing. Alas, Southend does not have a greyhound track, although I am told that it did once. Perhaps I can visit Romford's dog track, as Lady Thatcher once did, although I certainly will not take Boris and Barney with me, as someone from the National Greyhound Racing Club suggested. The NGRC and the British Greyhound Racing Board have done an excellent job—this is where I differ slightly with the hon. Member for Sunderland, North—in developing a code of practice. The real problem lies with the 20-odd unregulated tracks. One of those tracks has recently improved and not all the others are terrible, but most do not have veterinary officers on the premises, so there is a case for greater regulation. One benefit of a phased approach involving secondary legislation is that it puts pressure on the different sectors to make changes and to improve self-regulation. So even if we regulate formally through this House, the base point has moved on through the pressure that is being applied.
Finally, I want to join in the goldfish debate. It is appalling to give any animal as a prize. It matters not whether it is a child or an adult—it is entirely inappropriate.
This is a good enabling Bill and I certainly support it, but it falls short of providing sufficient detail on the secondary legislation that is needed. It will be much better if it is discussed in far greater depth in Committee, and if more detail on secondary legislation is added.
Like all other Members, I very much welcome this Bill, which will be as significant in our time as the Protection of Animals Act 1911 was in its time. I welcome the flexible approach that is being taken. It is sensible and practical and allows the law to keep pace with changes not only in science, but in moral sentiment in society.
I want to touch briefly on three issues on which there is an emerging common view, and I hope that the Government will consider crystallising that view as the Bill makes progress through the House. The first issue is the definition of suffering. Everybody accepts that there is a mental component to suffering, and I should be grateful if Ministers reflected, as the Bill makes progress, on whether that definition is as clear as it could be.
The second issue is pets and prizes, which has just emerged—again. Nobody wants unnecessary regulation or an unnecessary extension of state powers, but I am slightly puzzled by Ministers' resistance to the prohibition of giving pets as prizes. Giving pets as prizes is not a fundamental human right that raises questions of principle about the extension of state powers, but it does seem to be at odds with one of the fundamental principles underlying the Bill: respect for the welfare of other sentient beings. Such respect must underpin the acquisition of any companion animals. This is both a practical issue and an issue of principle. Inevitably, the acquisition of a companion animal as a prize—such acquisition will always be casual, because of the element of chance—will not be approached with the same seriousness of intent as a more considered acquisition. The welfare of the animal is obviously less likely to be paramount, so it is also a matter of principle that, if people are serious about animal welfare, they should approach their relationship with animals in a serious manner, and not as part of a game.
Finally, I turn to the question of the docking of dogs' tails. I shall not spend a lot of time on this matter, as it has been discussed exhaustively already, but the practice cannot be justified in any way, except when it is used for genuine and proven therapeutic purposes. That has not been disputed in this long debate, and I hope that Ministers will take note of the common view in the House about that barbaric practice. I hope that we shall soon see the end of it in this country.
I welcome the genuinely open and consultative approach adopted by Ministers. That has been a model for legislation and I thank the Government for it, on my own behalf and on behalf of all the constituents who have written to me about this matter. I am grateful to Ministers, their officials and all colleagues on the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee. We are all indebted to them for their hard work in bringing the Bill this far towards the statute book, and I shall certainly be supporting it.
I am delighted to be able to speak in this debate, and I begin by declaring two interests. First, the RSPCA animal hospital is situated in my constituency of Putney. Greg Mulholland said that the sanctuary in his constituency had goats. We do not have many goats in Putney, but if we did, I am sure that the RSPCA hospital would take excellent care of them.
The second interest that I should declare is that I own two cats that I got from the RSPCA rehoming service in Southall. When the cats arrived in my house, they realised that they had fallen on their feet—or should I say paws?—and had entered a great home. They are lucky, and most of the time lead a life of rest and relaxation, but there is no doubt that many pets in this country are not so fortunate. The Bill is to be greatly welcomed for the progress in animal welfare that it represents.
The Bill is badly needed. Other speakers have mentioned the RSPCA statistics in respect of animal welfare; the statistic that I find the most worrying tells us that the number of visits by officers rose by about 40 per cent. between 2003 and 2004. In addition, officers are worried about a greater proportion of the animals that they see on those visits. That is a definite problem, and we need to tackle it.
I have three broad areas of concern that I want to bring to the House's attention, and which I hope will be addressed in Committee. The first has to do with the use of secondary legislation, about which other contributors have spoken already. The second problem is that the Bill needs to be made wider in its application, and the third has to do with the proposed sanctions against people who are found guilty of animal welfare offences.
We have heard that the Bill is an enabling measure, and I accept that things can change over time and that legislation needs to be flexible as a result. Ninety-five years have elapsed since the last Bill dealing with animal welfare, and unfortunately it may be that another 95 years will go by before we revisit the matter. However, concern has been expressed in the debate that the proposals place great reliance on secondary legislation, so it is incumbent on the Government to make that secondary legislation, and the details that underpin it, very clear.
The regulatory impact assessment is very short on detail. We do not know whether the document to be published will be full and comprehensive, or whether other elements will be introduced at a later stage. We are also lacking information about the codes of practice and other details, with the result that the Bill is like a Christmas tree without decorations. I want to agree with the decorations that will be put on it, but it would be nice if we had a clearer idea of what they are likely to be before we are asked to ratify their use.
Moreover, I share the concerns that have been expressed about how the secondary legislation will be adopted in the future, given that we have not been able to see the substance of the first tranche of that legislation. I hope that the Minister will give the House some assurances about the procedures that will be used. There needs to be strong consultation before proposals are developed into statutory instruments. In addition, those instruments—whether they be regulatory, or take the form of codes of practice—should be subject to positive resolution achieved through the affirmative procedure.
Such an approach is not especially unusual. The codes of practice in section 3 of the Agriculture (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1968 were subject to positive resolution, and the Bill already suggests that regulations should be handled in a similar manner. With this Bill, therefore, I urge the Government to adopt the same approach with regard to statutory instruments introducing codes of practice.
As I said, my second reservation about the Bill has to do with the breadth of its application, and the additional offences that it introduces in respect of cruelty to animals and of animal fighting. I believe that new offences should be introduced to cover the making, distribution and possession of images of animal cruelty and of bestiality for which there can be no lawful authority or excuse. That is the approach adopted in respect of child pornography.
I know that the Government responded to the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee by saying that they did not want to go down that road because there was no guarantee that the animal welfare offences captured in such images were being committed in Britain. However, that is not seen as a hindrance to taking strong action against child pornography, and I urge the Government to take the same approach with videos of animal cruelty.
The RSPCA will confirm that it is very difficult to prosecute people who organise animal fights, so we should give ourselves a chance to take as much action as possible against them. If the law makes it hard to prosecute the main offence, we should at least strengthen our ability to prosecute on a secondary level. That is my second suggestion.
My third suggestion—and perhaps it is the most emotive for me as an MP—is that we should strengthen the sanctions proposed in the Bill. The Bill is a great step forward, in that it will enable us to prevent cruelty and prosecute it more thoroughly. The original 1911 Act focused on the prosecution and punishment of people convicted of cruelty, whereas this measure focuses more on prevention. That is long overdue, and I welcome it very much, but I am concerned about the practical effect of the sanctions that the Bill introduces.
I hope that the Minister, when he sums up, will correct me if I have misunderstood the proposals. At present magistrates can give custodial sentences of up to six months to people convicted of animal cruelty, yet the Bill's apparent increase of that sentence to as much as 51 weeks' imprisonment is affected by the custody plus provisions in the Criminal Justice Act 2003. As a result, the term "imprisonment" is somewhat misleading, and the custodial sentence handed out to people will amount to just 13 weeks. That is about half the length of sentence that is available under the current provisions for people convicted of animal cruelty offences. That really concerns me, not only because it sends out a very bad message about how our society wants to punish people convicted of offences against animals, but because it is just plain wrong when seen in the context of the sanctions available for other crimes. For example, people convicted of criminal damage can be referred to the Crown Court, where a penalty much harder than the 13 weeks available under custody plus can be handed down.
To me, it seems ludicrous that a person who damages an inanimate object—for example, by burning down a large building—can receive a custodial sentence of two or three years, when a person who commits horrific acts of cruelty against many animals over a long period of time cannot be punished with anything more severe than a sentence of 13 weeks. That is what the Bill provides, and the sentence may even be reduced or replaced with a community service order.
The Government have recognised that different levels of offence should be considered in connection with manslaughter and murder—or homicide, as we may end up calling it. In the same way, they should recognise that different degrees of cruelty are involved in the way that people act in relation to animals. The law should not be clipped to prevent harsh sentences being given to those who commit the very worst offences of animal cruelty.
I welcome the Bill, which is a big step forward. My right hon. Friend Miss Widdecombe talked about dumb animals, but the science we have today suggests that animals are not necessarily dumb. We know that chimpanzees have 98 per cent. of the DNA of humans. It may never be possible to train a marsupial to do quadratic equations—although if we could we would, depending on where we lived in the world, say "Eureka!" or "Carumba!"—but we should take care of animals, whether dumb or smart. We need sanctions to use against people who do not look after animals, and if we have harsh penalties for that it will say something about our society. I hope that the Minister will be able to address some of my concerns.
It is a pleasure to speak in a debate in which a Bill is welcomed on both sides of the House, albeit with differences of opinion about the interpretation of some of the clauses. I am pleased to follow Justine Greening, who spoke passionately—as have other hon. Members—but with great understanding of the issues. It has been suggested that some of the debate has been emotive, but I think that hon. Members have spoken with passion as well as an understanding of the science and technology involved in the issues.
We are known as a nation of animal lovers, but I wonder whether we really deserve that description, given the research on animal cruelty. A small minority of people cause suffering to animals, and the Bill rightly seeks to stop that and to deal with those people. That is why it is warmly welcomed by me, by other Labour Members and, I am glad to hear, by Opposition Members.
Unfortunately, figures released last year by the RSPCA showed a rise in the number of convictions for animal cruelty in the Swindon area from four to 15. The number of animals rescued from cruel treatment and abandonment in the south-west rose by 1,000. Some of the cases made grim headlines, as Andrew Rosindell graphically described earlier. I hope that the Bill will outlaw some of those practices and bring the perpetrators to book.
Later this year I hope to work as an RSPCA inspector for a day and I hope that other hon. Members will take advantage of the opportunity to do so. I am a little apprehensive about it because their work, while very worthwhile, can be harrowing. However, it is important for hon. Members to have some understanding of what is happening in our areas. There are many animal welfare organisations operating in Swindon, as in other parts of the country, and my office has consulted them about the Bill. They welcome it, and it will help them to deal with the results of the senseless animal cruelty that we have heard about today.
I hope that the Bill will cause a reversal of the statistics that I mentioned earlier and we can maintain our good reputation for animal welfare through our protection for animals. The Bill has seen a high level of public engagement. Since I have been a Member of Parliament I have noticed that people who care deeply about animal welfare tend to be open to working with their MP to bring about change, and that is obvious on both sides of the House. My postbag is full of letters expressing delight that the legislation is to be updated. As we have heard, the original legislation is nearly 100 years old and was the first parliamentary legislation on animal welfare in the world.
Like my correspondents, I have been waiting for better legislation and I am aware that many people in Swindon are counting on us to ensure that the Bill is robust enough to stand the test of another century if necessary. One area in which I fear the Bill will not be robust enough is tail docking. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State repeated earlier her statement at the weekend that she will listen to the views of Parliament on that issue and I welcome that. I did not interpret that to mean that she would retain the status quo. I hope that she will listen and see the necessity of banning tail docking. Vets and the RSPCA have opposed tail docking for many years on the grounds that it causes pain and serves no useful purpose. I see a conflict between the Bill's new obligation on the owner of an animal to do what is reasonable to meet its needs for appropriate protection from pain and injury and the practice of tail docking. There is a real need for concrete evidence about whether tail docking is justified for working dogs because of the risk of injury, compared with non-working dogs. A seven-year study at the university of Edinburgh showed insufficient evidence of statistical significance to suggest a positive association between tail injuries and undocked tails. We would need evidence of some weight before we could say that we should retain that practice. I believe that the House should legislate to ban tail docking in all dogs, including working dogs. It is a controversial issue, as we have heard, with strong views held on both sides, and I hope that it will be examined in detail in Committee.
The Bill has the potential to make a real difference to the lives of many domestic animals in Swindon and those at the Swindon greyhound track in the constituency of my neighbour, my hon. Friend Mr. Wills, when the secondary legislation is made in the next few years. The new welfare offence will prevent many animals from enduring serious ongoing neglect by legally obliging owners to care for their pets properly. Too often, offenders have walked away. The Bill will strengthen the penalties and eliminate loopholes. For example, as we have heard, there will be a fine of up to £25,000 and an available sentence of nearly a year in prison, although I take the point that that may not be the final outcome.
The Bill sends a strong message to would-be abusers of animals and backs it up with real deterrents. That is why I have welcomed it and supported it in principle. I look forward to working with organisations and residents in my constituency to make it an even better Bill.
I pay tribute to the Government for introducing the Bill, which I support, but I would ask the Government to go further on the range of issues that I will set out in the next few minutes. The Bill is perhaps a little confused in parts. Some hon. Members have said that it has some grey areas and some have gone as far as saying that it has some large holes. I would not go that far, but we do need clarification on several points.
We have heard some excellent contributions. I congratulate my hon. Friend Derek Conway who said that one only had to be normal to be a cat owner, which might explain why I have always only ever owned dogs. I declare an interest as a dog owner with two miniature schnauzers. I am a proud member of the miniature schnauzer club of Great Britain and I am secretary of the all-party group on wildlife trusts.
I also pay tribute to the Dogs Trust in Roden in my constituency, which I have visited several times. The head office of the PDSA is in Shropshire, and I also pay tribute to the Hilbrae kennels, which I have also visited and which does a marvellous job taking in abandoned dogs. I also pay tribute to the Shropshire Star, which campaigns for animal welfare.
I shall make some general points and then some points about specific clauses. There has been no mention of the epidemic of dog-napping. Up and down the land, even as we speak, dogs are being kidnapped, which causes great distress and misery not only to pets but also to owners. I hope that the Minister will look at the excellent work of dogslost.co.uk and consider how the Government might help that organisation in reuniting pets with owners, perhaps by encouraging the police to take the crime of dog-napping more seriously.
Members have referred to suffering due to internet sales of animals. I am disappointed that the Bill does not explicitly make provision for stricter controls on internet sales. Although the Government recognise the need for a code of conduct, there are no proposals for tightening up the controls and no guarantee that they will be forthcoming, as they should be. I encourage the Minister to come to the House on
Members on both sides of the House have made excellent speeches and have made many of the points that I wanted to raise, so I shall speak about some issues that have not been mentioned. Have the Government held discussions with the Town and Country Planning Association with regard to the effects on animal welfare of the design of new houses? As the majority of domestic animals spend most of their time in houses, unfortunately, I hope that due consideration to their welfare will be given in the design of new houses. Homes can be made pet-friendly, and I should welcome the Minister's comments on that point.
Even as we speak, tens of thousands of cats and dogs are locked up in homes throughout the country while their owners are at work. The simple installation of a dog or cat flap would make their lives much easier. Animals do not have our privileges. When nature calls, I can approach the Chair and you are always generous, Mr. Deputy Speaker; you release me from the Chamber for a few moments, but pets in homes up and down the land do not have that privilege. I hope that the design of new homes will be taken seriously, so that people can have gardens.
In refutation, it is often said that burglars can get in through the dog or cat flap, but if a burglar wants to get into someone's home, they will find a way. I do not know of many burglars who have confessed to and been convicted of entering a house through the dog flap. They usually get in through an open bathroom window or simply smash down the door.
I was not aware that the provision of a dog or cat flap was a planning issue. Can my hon. Friend take his argument further and give examples of design features that would help the dog or cat trapped in the home?
I suspect that my hon. Friend is leading me into a trap, but I shall not go there. I agree; such provision is not a planning issue. The Government spend too much time interfering in planning, but I commend the Town and Country Planning Association's report on the issue. I know that my hon. Friend will go post haste to the Library to retrieve it after the debate.
I welcome the proposals for longer sentences and higher fines, but as other Members have rightly said, records reveal that few magistrates courts give custodial sentences. I agree with my hon. Friend Justine Greening: Members on both sides of the House would like magistrates to give custodial sentences. I encourage the Minister to consider mandatory custodial sentences for people convicted three times of offences of animal neglect or cruelty, rather than just another fine or a short sentence. Will the Minister reassure us that time served will increase as a result of the Bill? That is a substantive point.
I welcome disqualification orders. I remember a case in Newcastle when a Shetland pony had been locked into its stable and burnt alive. I was visiting the area on business and read about the incident in the newspaper and got involved in trying to find out who was behind it. I discussed the case with some people and it occurred to me that a person convicted of such an offence against their own or another animal—probably the latter—could be disqualified from keeping an animal but could then move away, for example, from Newcastle to London, and buy another animal. Nobody would be any the wiser. Will the Government consider introducing a national register of people convicted of cruelty to animals? Responsible dog breeders or people selling cats or other animals could access a national database to find out whether the buyer is a responsible owner. I hope that the Bill can eventually close that loophole.
Members have rightly spoken of the promotion of animal welfare through education and of the need for intervention and prevention. I endorse those calls and support that element of the Bill. Will the Minister inform the House whether he has held discussions with the Department for Education and Skills about establishing a national animal welfare day? I do not think there is one. Perhaps the Minister could respond. Will the Government find time in the national curriculum for young children for some input on animal welfare?
Has my hon. Friend received a report from the WAVE—Worldwide Alternatives to Violence—Trust, whose chairman is Sir Christopher Ball? It sets out the causes of the massive increase in crimes of violence in this country since the 1950s. Has my hon. Friend associated crimes of violence against the person with crimes of cruelty to animals? There is a close correlation between the perpetration of crimes of violence against people—especially domestic violence—and of crimes of cruelty to animals. The report's most telling conclusion was that the wires in the brain that create such attitudes are in place by the age of three, which is something on which the DFES should concentrate.
My hon. Friend raises a helpful and interesting point. It is not a matter of either/or but of both. I am not aware of that report, but I know of reports that link violence against human beings, especially children, to violence against animals. Often, people convicted of cruelty to animals sadly go on to be cruel to children as well. It would be worth the Government taking a close look at that.
I believe that research conducted in America shows that there is a close link between child abuse and animal abuse. I understand that the RSPCA is starting to examine the matter with a bit more rigour and to do its own studies, the results of which will be available later this year.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for endorsing my point. I hope that the Government will examine the matter in detail because hon. Members on both sides of the House are worried about cruelty towards, and the neglect and abuse of, children, which has been ably addressed by the campaign of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, which I hope that all hon. Members will support and endorse through the relevant early-day motion.
I hope that the Government will consider educating people who have been convicted. Perhaps such people could attend compulsory classes that could be put on by the RSPCA or the Dogs Trust. Offenders could be educated about what their actions had brought about in the life of an animal and how they could be prevented from repeating their offences in the future.
We need to lift the debate so that we speak more about the stewardship of animals and not just about the ownership of them. I do not support the docking of animals' tails for cosmetic reasons, but I am open-minded and flexible about tail docking for working dogs. Several hon. Members have asked how one can prove that tail docking affects animals' welfare, but hunting dogs and gun dogs can be caught up in undergrowth and brambles and I know of circumstances in which dogs have suffered as a result of that. We need a debate on the matter.
It is interesting that the Government say that they want to license pet fairs because that presupposes that the House has given its consent to the re-emergence of pet fairs. I do not support pet fairs. They would lead to even more abandoned and stray dogs. It is interesting that the local authority that destroys more dogs than any other authority in the land is Sedgefield, so I hope that relevant dispatches will be sent off to No. 10. I was also briefed that the authority was perhaps Liverpool, but Liverpool has had its fair share of stick from the Conservative Benches in the past—I do not want to contribute to that today because I think that it is a fantastic city.
I support the Bill. I hope that inspectors will be given the appropriate amount of training and that local authorities will get the appropriate amount of resources. I hope that clause 29 will not lead to more dogs being killed as a result of their owners' cruelty.
I welcome the Bill, especially because I know that in its long gestation period—something like twice that of an elephant—there has been considerable consultation with people who work in animal welfare day in, day out. Rather than repeat many of the good points that hon. Members have already made, I shall simply make a couple of quick points on the tail docking of dogs.
As any dog owner will know, dogs use their tails to communicate. Any frustration that I might have felt when my late dog, George, flapped his mighty tail across the coffee table and caused absolute chaos was quickly subdued by the immense friendship, enthusiasm and excitement that he communicated with that tail. Most importantly, dogs use their tails to communicate with other dogs. Some behaviourists believe that if a dog cannot use its tail to communicate, it can feel insecure and vulnerable. The result of that can be that dogs show unwarranted aggression towards other dogs and humans. The tail is also important as a means of counterbalancing, especially if a dog wants to do something such as leap across a gap or walk along the edge of a canal.
The initial process of tail docking is painful, and I have heard gruesome tales from experienced vets who have had to clear up the mess when tail docking has gone terribly wrong. As my hon. Friend Anne Snelgrove said, studies that were conducted as far back as 1985 have shown that there is no link between tail injuries and undocked tails. Many of us know of working dogs with tails that have come to no harm. I would ask that the Bill's mutilation clause does not make an exception for the tail docking of dogs. In the event that the decision is left to Parliament, I would urge all hon. Members to support a ban on the tail docking of dogs.
I congratulate Nia Griffith on her speech. I shall speak about the welfare of racing greyhounds, following on from the comments made by my hon. Friends the Members for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) and for Rochford and Southend, East (James Duddridge) and Bill Etherington.
My contention is that although greyhound racing is a fine sport, when one considers it in the context of animal welfare, it is essentially the use of vulnerable animals by the gambling industry for profit. The Government are not taking greyhound welfare seriously enough. They are too influenced by the British Greyhound Racing Board in their approach to the issue. As animal welfare Bills come round only once every 100 years, we have a wonderful opportunity to make a real effort to save greyhounds from unnecessary suffering and—ultimately and sadly—death.
I wish to expand on the brief remarks that have been made about the greyhound industry. There are 30,000 active racing greyhounds on tracks that are owned by members of the National Greyhound Racing Club. There are also about 20 independent tracks that are not controlled by the NGRC. I know that the Minister has taken a close interest in greyhound welfare and that he responded to an Adjournment debate on the matter on
The greyhound racing industry makes huge amounts of money. It is mainly the bookmaking part of the industry that is reaping the rewards. Some £2 billion is bet on greyhound racing each year, which represents almost a quarter of the total amount of off-course betting in this country. The Government receive a staggering £350 million in betting duty from greyhound racing. The British greyhound racing fund receives 0.6 per cent. of the turnover on greyhound betting. That voluntary contribution goes towards improving the infrastructure of greyhound racing tracks. Only a fraction of the money raised, which is somewhere between £7 million and £16 million, goes towards the welfare of the greyhounds themselves. Sadly, none of the money goes to independent tracks, which do not have the same standards as NGRC tracks.
Many of the greyhounds that disappear suffer an unfortunate demise. It is suspected that most are put down inhumanely. Some are injected with antifreeze. Some are dumped on the side of motorways and left to wander off, or to be run over. Those with registration marks on their ears often have their ears cut off and others are shot. In an especially cruel case in 1994, 19 greyhounds were left in an empty quarry to starve.
This is a wonderful opportunity for the Government to impose statutory requirements on an industry which, although it has said that it will introduce voluntary improvements, is, sadly, not doing nearly enough or acting quickly enough. There needs to be a compulsory levy on all bookmakers because 20 per cent. of them do not take part in the voluntary scheme. We need strict statutory standards of welfare, not just a voluntary code; a mandatory provision of vets at all track meets; and a proper registration system and microchipping of greyhounds. All retired greyhounds need to be re-homed, and those bred for racing but which do not make it to the racing tracks also need to be sent to proper homes. All track and trainer kennelling needs to be to a minimum statutory standard. It is not just me saying this. The EFRA Committee said:
"We are unconvinced by the argument that the greyhound racing industry should be allowed until 2010 to regulate itself and improve its own welfare standards."
The Secretary of State started the debate by saying that many of the Select Committee's recommendations are included in the Bill. Sadly, for Britain's 30,000 greyhounds, that particular recommendation is not included.
The Government need to ensure that independent scrutineers—vets who are independent of the promoters of events—are at all greyhound racing tracks. The greyhounds cannot blow the whistle if their welfare is not being safeguarded, so we need an independent inspection agency that does.
The Government have set up a greyhound welfare working group, which has already set about its business. The problem is that there are eight industry representatives on the group and only three representatives from animal welfare charities. I suggest that that balance is wrong. I also suggest that the industry could all too easily stand of being accused of trying to bully animal welfare charities that are legitimately challenging the standards of care set by the industry.
In the gambling legislation that the Government have put through the House, they have emphasised the strength and the importance of an independent regulator for the casino industry. Yet greyhound racing is in effect the use of vulnerable animals by an arm of the gambling industry. Therefore, there should be strong, independent statutory regulation. I very much hope that with this welcome Animal Welfare Bill, which has come along for the first time in the best part of 100 years, the opportunity to look after Britain's greyhounds is not lost.
I welcome the Bill for the reasons outlined: because it updates and consolidates animal welfare law, provides a framework for more effective regulation of animal ownership and welfare, and increases the range of sentencing powers. The debate has principally been about what is not in the Bill. I shall say no more about that except that I support entirely any legislation that would prevent the mutilation of dogs and the use of animals in circuses.
I principally want to refer to the new duty of care, which has not received a great deal of attention in the Chamber. It has the potential to make a huge difference to the lives of many thousands of animals because it gives animals a right to the five freedoms referred to by my hon. Friend Paddy Tipping. Let us not underestimate the importance of the rights that the Bill gives to animals: the right to the provision of adequate food and water; the right to health care, appropriate protection from pain, injury and disease, and to diagnosis and treatment of those afflictions when they occur; and the right to a suitable environment for everyday existence and the capacity to exhibit their normal behaviour.
It is a sad reflection of society that we need to introduce that duty of care and to put it on the statute book. It is necessary for two sad reasons. First, there is a wide range of reasons why people go for domestic pet ownership. It is not always because pets are loved by their owners. Many are acquired for other reasons, such as personal security or as protection against burglary. I am not suggesting that we cannot have a range of legitimate reasons for acquiring pets, but there is a frequent risk that the interests of the animals are compromised because they were not adequately considered at the time of acquisition.
We have all seen the more extreme consequences of careless pet ownership. Every time we witness a stray dog in the street or the sorry sight of animals being rescued from cruel treatment, we witness the failure of society adequately to protect animals from cruel treatment. I welcome the provisions to establish a code of practice for the duty of care which will make the responsibilities of pet owners explicit. I urge the Minister to assure us that he will find ways of ensuring that the code of practice is, in one way or another, made readily available to all current and future pet owners, whether it is through pet shops or pet breeders. I support what was said by Mark Pritchard and Miss Widdecombe about educating pet owners. The introduction in the national curriculum—via citizenship classes perhaps—of the care of pets would be welcome.
My second reason for supporting the new duty of care relates to the greater protection that it offers to those animals that are bought by parents for their children. We all know which animals are popular with children. Cats, dogs, rabbits, hamsters and guinea pigs are among the most popular choices. There is no doubt that when the animals are purchased, the children concerned have every intention of caring for them and giving them all the attention they need. What happens, however, when a child loses interest and when the desire to care for the animal disappears and turns out to be a mere whim, rather than a genuine commitment? Neglect is often the consequence. It is not cruelty as we commonly understand it, but a form of treatment that could be viewed as cruelty because it exposes the animal to a limited and miserable existence. Of course, it is often the very small animals that suffer that treatment—the guinea pigs, hamsters and rabbits—because they are easy to overlook and forget. The duty of care will make it clear to parents that they must take responsibility for ensuring that animals in the care of the family are not merely protected from the worst consequences of neglect, but properly cared for to a standard agreed by society as the minimum acceptable. The new responsibility is inescapably laid at the door of the parents because of the measure to raise the age of acquisition of pets from 12 to 16. I welcome that because it makes it crystal clear where the responsibility lies for the welfare of an animal within the family home.
I support the Bill because I believe strongly that one of the key measures of a civilised society is how well it looks after its animals. I am not what people would call an animal lover in the traditional sense of the term. I know it is not easy for a British person to say that. My husband and I do not have pets, and neither do we have any intention of acquiring any. However, I detest cruelty to animals and feel passionately that they deserve the fullest rigour and protection of the law. In that respect, I would have preferred to see stronger measures in the Bill, such as the creation of a new offence to outlaw the possession of fighting equipment.
Nevertheless, the Bill has much to commend it, and I finish my remarks by paying tribute to all those organisations in the voluntary sector that have contributed so much to getting us to where we are today. We owe them our gratitude for all that they do and for their dedication to creatures that are so often vulnerable to the activities of a cruel minority in our society.
I am absolutely delighted that all the animal welfare issues that I and other hon. Members have campaigned on over the years come together in this Bill. I simply say to the Minister that I much regret that Tony Banks is not here with us. I have always enjoyed people who have a sense of humour. He certainly had a sense of humour—how else can one describe someone who represented West Ham, where I was born, and supported Chelsea football team? He will be greatly missed by all hon. Members, and I agree with my right hon. Friend Miss Widdecombe that the Bill serves as an epitaph to him.
Unlike Ms Smith, I have kept all sorts of animals over the years. At the moment I specialise in Siamese fighting fish; I breed them. The House will be glad to know that I do not allow the males to fight. Those of us who are keen on animals are labelled as cranks. I do not know whether it is such a bad thing to be labelled a crank. I simply observe that there appear to be an awful lot of cranks around at the moment.
The hon. Members for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) and for Sunderland, North (Bill Etherington) referred to tethering. I was a little disappointed in their remarks because in 1987, via the ten-minute rule, I successfully piloted through the House the Protection against Cruel Tethering Bill. The noble Lord Houghton of Sowerby, who is dead now, took it through the House of Lords. It caused a stir at the time, not so much because of the legislation but because I arrived at the Commons on a horse, and the horse was not particularly impressed with what was on his back. The Act protects horses, ponies and donkeys from being cruelly tethered; they have to be properly watered and fed. I am surprised that the Act was not called on, and I say to the Minister that it is another example of legislation of which we take no notice.
I say also to the Minister that in the time that I have been a Member there have been many animal welfare Bills that have not entirely turned out as we would have wanted. I remember speaking on the Third Reading of the Protection of Badgers Bill, being piloted through the House by the now Lord Waldegrave. The Minister will understand when I refer to a number of homes in a tiny urban area in my constituency where it seems that the badgers got together one night and decided to nip through the front door and take up ownership of the gardens. In two weeks I am having a meeting with the Minister, one or two of his officials and others to discuss that great problem. The Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 is another example of legislation that did not turn out entirely as we would have wished.
I welcome the Animal Welfare Bill, however, because it goes much further than the Protection of Animals Act 1911. However, I say to the Minister, as other Members have, that some of the clauses should be more carefully defined so that the Bill will be workable and its provisions enforced. We do not want to waste our time celebrating the introduction of the Bill after 100 years only to find out that much of it is difficult to enforce. Some practices that have not been included in the Bill should be regulated through secondary legislation to ensure the protection of animals.
For example, both the Kennel Club and the RSPCA are, as the Minister knows, disappointed that the Bill fails to prohibit the use of electric dog collars. They have not been proven an effective means of dog training. I do not know whether they could be used to train Members of Parliament, but they are no good for dogs. They scare the animal so that it conforms through fear rather than addressing more deep-seated behavioural problems. Furthermore, these instruments are available through mail order. I ask the Minister to look very carefully at that matter in Committee.
I certainly welcome clauses 4 to 7, which deal with prevention of harm. I welcome the fact that they make it an offence to cause mental as well as physical suffering to animals through a direct act, through negligence or by failing to prevent suffering inflicted by a person on an animal for which he is responsible. That redefinition of animal cruelty is long overdue; it recognises the psychological impact of mistreatment and neglect which can affect animals long after their physical rehabilitation.
I welcome clauses 8 to 10, which deal with the promotion of welfare. It is excellent that welfare legislation for domestic animals is being brought into line with provisions for farmed animals in the Welfare of Farmed Animals (England) Regulations 2000. Also in this part, the restriction of the sale of animals and the awarding of animals as prizes to persons over the age of 16 will, to a certain extent, ensure that the person to whom the animal is being transferred will be responsible. I made two or three attempts to introduce legislation on that in the House, and I am going to take a tiny bit of credit for the fact that the matter has been included in the Bill. I agree with everything that hon. Members have said about that. The duty of care that people are given in their ownership of animals has to be dealt with very carefully.
David Lepper made a point about pet fairs which I know will slightly annoy the Minister. We do not have the time to go into the minutiae of what has gone on behind the scenes, but I ask the Minister to look at the issue carefully. Pet fairs are currently banned under the 1983 amendment to the Pet Animals Act 1951 which outlaws the business of selling animals
"in any part of a street or public place, or at a stall or barrow in a market".
I can remember my father, who is now dead, so I can say this, taking me to the animal market in Club lane, Petticoat row. I thought that it was marvellous, but I now realise that it was a very wrong way to sell animals. I am not happy with the two or three pet fairs that exist. The Minister has all the documentation on them and I ask him to look carefully at the issue. I know that the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion will tonight present a petition of 15,000 signatures. The RSPCA, Animal Aid, the Dogs Trust and the Animal Protection Agency have been campaigning tirelessly against the practices of animal traders.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald, in yet another magnificent speech, touched on the issue of tail docking. I do not know whether she made an intentional faux pas, but I tell the House that she presented our youngest child with a black Labrador puppy called Michael. Michael has not stopped wagging his tail since he entered our household, and there are occasions when my wife says, "I wish he would stop wagging his tail—there goes another bit of china." I am very content that he continues to wag his tail. I do not know that any of us would like to have our tails docked. Of course we do not have tails, but I should not think that we would be terribly pleased. This is a very difficult issue, and I know that one or two hon. Members have said that the Minister has sat on the fence. The Kennel Club welcomes the Bill's stance on the issue; indeed I see that it has placed an information advertisement in "The House Magazine" this week maintaining that tail docking should remain a matter of choice for the owner. That view is supported by the Essex and Eastern Counties Boxer Club, which insists that the breed of the dog and the purpose of its breeding should be considered if regulations were to be introduced on tail docking. It is a difficult issue and I hope that the House will be given the opportunity to come to a conclusion on it.
Paddy Tipping referred to the qualifications of inspectors. Concerns have been raised about changes to the way in which animal welfare regulations are enforced through the introduction of inspection officers with new powers to transfer the custody of animals away from abusive owners. Currently, the RSPCA is the largest private prosecutor for animal welfare offences. It has been investigating abuses and enforcing laws relating to animals for more than 100 years in conjunction with the police, the state veterinary service and Customs and Excise. The Bill will not alter this process despite suggestions that the Crown Prosecution Service should be the sole instigator of prosecutions. The Environment Food and Rural Affairs Committee considered the draft of the Bill in 2004 and concluded that, even though concerns have been raised about links between prosecution and the campaigning arms of the RSPCA,
"there appears to be no body other than the RSPCA with the requisite experience to undertake animal welfare prosecutions" and the RSPCA
"should be able to continue to institute private prosecutions on its own behalf."
The training of inspectors is essential. There are not enough inspectors and the street-wise attitude which I suppose has developed only in terms of length of service somehow has to be shared with as many inspectors as possible.
I welcome the Bill, as do many other right hon. and hon. Members. It effectively amalgamates previous legislation. It updates our approach to animal welfare, recognising psychological as well as physical needs, and includes clauses on the prevention of cruelty. I am concerned that the codes of conduct, regulations and licensing codes that will be drafted under secondary legislation should be subjected to full parliamentary scrutiny. To have the legalisation of itinerant pet fairs or a ban on tail docking put into statute without wider public consultation that takes in the most recent scientific evidence would be a great mistake. However, I think that all animals can celebrate tonight.
I join right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House in welcoming the Bill. It is gratifying to support a Bill that has so much support in the House and, more widely, from the many agencies that are concerned with animal welfare.
In speaking at this point in the debate I am faced with the dilemma that is known to all Members of the new intake. Having waited for hours to speak, it seems that much that I wanted to say has already been said. However, it is important that as many Members as possible have a chance to speak and to air their views on the issues that have been raised.
We have heard from many colleagues who have a long history of concern about animal welfare issues. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State mentioned that we were the first country to legislate to protect animal welfare. Yet, as my hon. Friend Anne Snelgrove said, it is curious that in a country such as ours, with so much concern for animal welfare, there are still so many instances of animals being subject to suffering and living their lives in stressful and unnatural conditions. At its extreme, this emerges as examples of cruelty sent to right hon. and hon. Members in the briefings from the RSPCA. It is to be seen in reports of, for example, the party-goers who microwaved a pet cat during a party over the Christmas season.
It is therefore most welcome that the Bill promotes a duty of care among animal owners that is surely to be applied to those such as the people who had the party during which the cat was microwaved. Account must also be taken of the needs of animals. The Bill covers needs such as a suitable environment, food and water, protection from pain, the suffering of injury and disease, housing with or apart from other animals and the ability to exhibit normal behaviour patterns.
From that list, I think that the two most important needs are protection from pain, injury and disease and the ability to be able to exhibit normal behaviour for the species. Those two aspects of an animal's welfare are important in determining our responses to the issues that have been highlighted earlier, such as mutilation in the form of tail docking, electric shock collars used for training, pet fairs or intensive factory-level farming for the rearing of game birds.
If we take account of an animal's welfare needs as expressed in the Bill, it is clear what our response to many of these issues should be. Ways of mutilating animals such as the non-therapeutic docking of dogs' tails should no longer be allowed in my view. Tail docking undoubtedly causes pain. If the reasons are cosmetic and mainly to do with the dog's breed, that pain seems to be unnecessary. Tail docking will also inhibit normal behavioural habits. The dog cannot wag its tail or use it for balance or movement. Mutilating a dog's tail seems to be one of those outdated and unnecessary practices that it is time that we planned to end. In common with other hon. Members, the dog owners to whom I have spoken recently share that view.
Several hon. Members, including Mr. Amess, have raised the issue of pet fairs. Given the emphasis in the Bill on regulation, licensing and a duty of care, a fair is not the right place to buy and sell animals. There is evidence that some pet fairs sell animals caught in the wild, so there is clearly a health risk to the public, particularly given current concerns about wild birds. Pets undoubtedly suffer stress if they are taken to a crowded fair and exhibited for sale. For those reasons, we should revisit the issue of banning pet fairs. Some local authorities already do so, and it would be helpful if good practice were clarified for the benefit of all local authorities.
Concern has been expressed about farming conditions for the millions of game birds reared every year for shooting. My hon. Friend Paddy Tipping aired the issues very well. It is good that shooting organisations such as the British Association for Shooting and Conservation have now expressed opposition to the intensive rearing of game birds. It should therefore be clear to people who rear such birds that the time has come to look at more traditional methods, to abandon the intensive farming of game birds, and to try to return to free-range methods of rearing.
I should like to close my remarks by congratulating the Government on the Bill, which will raise animal welfare standards and make owners responsible for their animals or suffer increased penalties if they fail to do what is reasonable to meet the animal's needs. I welcome, too, the prosecution of people responsible for arranging, or being present at, animal fights, or causing unnecessary suffering in other ways described by hon. Members. When I was an elected member in local government in Trafford, we introduced our own animal welfare charter, which covered many aspects of animal welfare. It did not have the force of legislation, but we introduced it to promote debate on the issues and to foster best practice. I am pleased that the framework of the Bill will allow debate and the fostering of best practice, both now and in the months and years to come.
I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to our debate. Mine is the last Back-Bench contribution, so the debate will conclude early, thus allowing hon. Members to return home to their pets, which will be wondering what on earth has become of them. It often strikes me that it is a misnomer to describe people as pet owners, as clearly it is the pet that owns the human. Indeed, as a young boy I was brought up by two Burmese cats which ruled the roost in my house. Our debate is ending early not because of a lack of interest among hon. Members—many of them have studied the Bill with great care and have an intense interest in the issues that it raises—but because there is significant consensus that the Bill is welcome and necessary. It is timely, it has been the subject of consultation, and it has been examined in great detail, so it will have a relatively smooth passage through the House and the other place.
As a new Member, I continue to enjoy participating in our debates and seeing how the issues develop, and it is clear from today's debate that two or three issues will be contentious, including tail docking. Having been lobbied by constituents and organisations that are interested in the issue, I have studied the subject closely in the past few weeks and months in an effort to reach a conclusive view. The Government should ask themselves three questions. First, does the current system work? It is a rigorous system, based on amendments in 1991 and 1993 to the Veterinary Surgeons Act 1966, which permitted vets alone to carry out tail dockings. Anyone else who docks a dog's tail performs an illegal act, as I pointed out to Mr. Martlew.
We should accept that the system works well, given the strong position of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, which opposes tail docking except where it is necessary. Secondly, if we opt for a total ban on tail docking, the Government should ask what the consequences will be. Like many unpleasant practices that we regulate or allow to be legal, we do so partly because we do not want to see the consequences when those practices are illegal. Those consequences are that the practice goes underground, is carried out by inexperienced people, and leads, possibly, to more cruelty by being carried out in an unregulated environment than in a regulated environment.
At the heart of the debate on tail docking is the issue of whether it is cruel. Again, the evidence is finely balanced. I have been referred to at least three senior veterinary sources who have come to the conclusion that tail docking is not cruel because young puppies do not have the same nervous systems as grown dogs. In particular, I refer to the research of Professor Grandjean, a French professor whose name loosely translates as Big John, and therefore not a man to be trifled with, from the veterinary school of Alfor in France, who is the author and scientific co-ordinator of the "Royal Canine Dog Encyclopaedia". I shall carry on talking as my right hon. Friend Miss Widdecombe is ready to spring on me. He describes the period shortly after birth as a "vegetative phase". The dog has few reflex actions and the nervous system is not fully developed.
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. First, how young a puppy has he dealt with, and was that puppy a vegetable, or did it actually exhibit reactions? Secondly, does he agree that unless there is a serious purpose to docking, even if it causes only minimal pain it is wrong because of the other consequences? Finally, after all that, does he accept that there is also research, which I think was quoted earlier, that shows that puppies do feel the pain?
As I say, the research is worth considering in some detail, but the sources that I am quoting appear to me to be extremely senior veterinary surgeons. As to the age of the puppy, I would refer to the research of Professor Hales from Sydney university, who says that tail docking up to the age of 14 days would not lead to pain for the puppy. Returning to Professor Grandjean, his view is that major surgery could be carried out on a puppy that was very young because the nervous system is not yet developed. The point—
This is an extremely important point to which my right hon. Friend referred, which is whether I would support tail docking where it is not for working dogs or absolutely necessary. Again, that goes back to my point about driving tail docking underground and the unintended consequences of doing that.
I just want to develop this point very quickly. As the Kennel Club has pointed out, many breeds are bred specifically as tail-docked dogs, and those breeds would no longer be bred by their owners were a complete ban introduced, and that would have unfortunate consequences for those breeds.
If tail docking is about to be driven underground, it seems to me to be an extraordinary underground. If the purpose of tail docking is to have a particular form for a particular breed, quite clearly the people who sell dogs with docked tails are registered known sellers. If it becomes an illegal act, they will not let it happen because they could be prosecuted. Where is the underground in all this?
That is precisely my point. They will stop breeding these unfortunate breeds. However, I have no doubt that other people who dock the tails of dogs who are not registered or perhaps use them as working dogs will continue to do so without any veterinary supervision, and that is my major concern.In conclusion on that point, I simply say that if the system is not broken, why try to fix it? A closely regulated system by the veterinary profession seems to me to be the best system to take forward.
I want to examine two other issues. [Interruption.] That takes me back to my days on "Newsnight" with my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald. As I have said, the regulatory impact assessment points out that anyone who sells an animal over the internet requires a licence under the Pet Animals Act 1951. Without further clarification of "selling an animal", however, there is an enormous loophole, because one could advertise animals without specifically saying that they are for sale. The legislation also misses out internet service providers that carry such advertising or websites that allow people to buy or auction animals.
An enormous variety of animals, some of which are endangered species or should not be kept domestically, are available for sale on the internet, including a gorilla, which is apparently based in London, a giraffe and even a Siberian tiger. [Interruption.] Yes; hon. Members have heard me correctly—a gorilla, a giraffe and a Siberian tiger.
I certainly will. I visited the "Big Brother" house this morning to discuss the conduct of Mr. Galloway. In my remarks at the "Big Brother" house, I also condemned the wearing of gorilla fur, which is atrocious, by the hon. Gentleman's colleague, Mr. Peter Burns from Dead or Alive. This morning, I told executives at Channel 4 and Endemol UK Productions that they should be ashamed for allowing a coat made from gorilla fur into the house, and I hope that the Minister takes up the issue with them.
Finally, the will of the House is clear on keeping primates as pets. The House would like the opportunity to vote on a complete ban, and I hope that Norman Baker introduces his amendment. Primates are extremely sociable animals that live comparatively long lives—20 to 40 years—and which are wholly unsuitable domestic pets. The Scottish Parliament is currently considering a Bill that would allow the Scottish Executive to impose a ban on keeping specific species of animal. Clause 10 of this Bill gives the Government broad powers to introduce regulations, but it does not make it explicit that the Government have the power to ban the ownership of specific species. I hope that the Government will revisit that clause and introduce an amendment to give them the power to ban the ownership of specific species of animal.
In the Chinese year of the dog, I should declare that I have some chickens and at least three cows—hopefully, I will have more than three cows in the coming months.
The Secretary of State opened the debate and did very well until she hit the thorny issue of the size of fines and prison sentences—I was tempted to make a joke about the amount of bird that one might end up doing for animal offences.
I shall move quickly on to the excellent contribution by my hon. Friend Mr. Ainsworth, although it says in my notes that I should not mention "the Kevin Keegan hair". [Laughter.] I hope that he will forgive me—he has not kicked me yet, anyway. His excellent speech was concerned, sincere and questioning on issues such as longer sentences for severe abuse. He discussed his concerns about Statutory Instrument Committees, and as he is a former Government Whip we should take his points seriously. He promised a free vote on tail docking and, importantly for the Government, a constructive and open dialogue.
Norman Baker talked about the lack of deadlines for introducing the code of conduct, which is an important point. He also took a hard line on bird fairs and animal sanctuaries.
Mr. Martlew said that he would be boring, but then told a rather good story about the sanctuary of which he was a patron, saying that pit ponies deserved a fair crack of the whip. After that, sadly, he must have wrestled with his conscience, and he stuck to his word.
My right hon. Friend Miss Widdecombe observed that undue negligence and ignorance are the two reasons why acts of cruelty take place. She said that it is a very serious business and talked about the costs and responsibilities. She made a good case for the better education of people who own pets. Having described this place as a chimpanzee's tea party, she spoke with passion about animal training, circuses and the ownership of primates. Perhaps I misunderstood her when she said she had come across electric shock collars while she was Prisons Minister, as I did not think that we had that as a punishment. I guess that she must have been talking about dog training for warders. She is a clear and powerful voice for what she described as her dumb friends, and I pay tribute to her for that.
Paddy Tipping, who also served on the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, pointed to the provisions on duty of care as an improvement. He expressed concern about the cost to local authorities, which is another important point for the Government to consider. He spoke in a positive way about shooting.
My hon. Friend Derek Conway talked about the history of animal welfare legislation, the £27 million raised for cats, and the fact that people who treat animals badly often go on to treat people badly, which is a mark of our society. He spoke eloquently about sanctuaries, particularly odd ones, and the problems of people who tend to collect cats. He handled the issue extremely sensitively and with enormous common sense. Apparently, love may conquer all except large numbers of cats, sometimes hundreds. He talked about welcome improvements in this area and pointed out that most of the work of the RSPCA—which is, like most of an iceberg, unseen—is not political and very much benefits the animals that it seeks to protect. He referred to mutilation. He also made an important point about the time allowed for the Report stage of the Bill.
Shona McIsaac talked about custody plus and the stretch that people will spend inside if convicted. She mentioned performing animals and lions in Grimsby, which surprised me. She referred to natural behaviour being constrained and spoke up for her Whip, which was good of her.
My hon. Friend Mr. Gray noted that the Bill should not make the lot of animals worse. He talked about the missing codes of conduct and the risk of kicking important issues into the long grass, thereby avoiding the transparency that the Government say that they want when having to tackle such difficult decisions. He made some interesting observations about the ownership of baby animals and live trapping, and went on to make a crucial point about abandonment, especially of horses. He spoke in his usual clear, concise and concerned way.
Mr. Drew, who also served on the Committee, is a very caring man, and he talked about cruelty being a growing problem. He also raised a crucial matter that the Government would do well to bear in mind—the need to modernise laws relating to the Veterinary Surgeons Act 1966. He volunteered to test the wording, which probably means that he can be confident that he will not serve on the Bill Committee. If the Whips missed him saying that, I am sorry for dishing him, as they will not have missed it a second time.
My hon. Friend Andrew Rosindell clearly has a tremendous fondness for Buster, his bull terrier. He recited a horrible list of acts of abhorrent cruelty and inhumane offences and stressed the importance of increasing penalties. He also made a crucial point about removing dog fighting paraphernalia, which would help considerably in stamping out that revolting activity. He mentioned greyhounds, spoke passionately and was, as always, an excellent advocate for man's best friend.
David Taylor spoke about tethering animals. He, too, served on the Select Committee.
I fear that I missed the contribution of Greg Mulholland but I believe that he took a little stick because the Bill applies to vertebrates and therefore not to the Liberal Democrat leadership. However, I did not hear that so I am sorry.
Bill Etherington made a caring speech.
My hon. Friend James Duddridge spoke on a wide range of issues clearly and with great authority. He ranged from greyhounds to goldfish and I think that I heard him say that he did not approve of giving children as prizes, with which I agree.
Mr. Wills presented a compelling argument about pets as prizes. It was an excellent contribution but it was a shame that it was so short.
My hon. Friend Justine Greening, who has the RSPCA animal hospital in her constituency, welcomed the Bill. She talked about three important issues: the secondary legislation, the breadth of the measure and the punishments for the guilty. The Government have described the Bill as a Christmas tree and my hon. Friend said that we want to welcome the decorations to hang on it but that we want to know what they are. She put her finger on the nub of the problem with the Bill, which is that the meat is not on the face of it.
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me for that—I think he understood perfectly what I meant. The important parts of the Bill are not written on the face of it.
My hon. Friend the Member for Putney mentioned custody plus and made the important point that it means that the sentences could be as little as 13 weeks instead of the 51 weeks that the Government have promised.
My hon. Friend Mark Pritchard, who has two miniature schnauzers and is a club member, paid tribute to the Shropshire Star. That newspaper is kind enough to publish my press releases from time to time. He called on the Government to tidy up the rules on internet pet sales. That is an important point. He mentioned the sensitive issue of cat flaps and referred to serious cases and the list of animal offenders. That is an important aspect of the Bill because I do not think that it would be practical for pet shop owners to check lists of previous offenders. However, I believe that the Government plan to introduce a list of offenders and we will deal with that in Committee.
Nia Griffith talked about tail docking with some passion and mentioned her dog.
My hon. Friend Mr. Hollobone talked about greyhounds and the £350 million in revenue from greyhound racing. He referred to the plight of greyhounds and the number that are put down and abandoned. He made the case for hurrying up with the codes of conduct to safeguard their welfare. He made an excellent speech.
Ms Smith talked about the duty of care, reasons for ownership and children losing interest in their pets. We have witnessed that with the ninja turtles and fish like Nemo. It was brave of her to say that she was not an animal lover but she made an excellent contribution.
My hon. Friend Mr. Amess keeps fighting fish—a fascinating creature that can breathe through its mouth—[Laughter.] Fish normally breathe through their gills. It lays its eggs in a bubble nest. He talked about the Protection against Cruel Tethering Act 1988 and other measures on which he has worked. He has a tremendous pedigree on animal legislation. He said that he was unhappy about electric collars and pet fairs but entertained us greatly with talk of his dog, Michael, which he clearly adores.
Barbara Keeley related a revolting example of a microwaved cat and then unfortunately repeated it. She referred to tail docking, the duty of care and industrial or large-scale pheasant egg production. She will be pleased to know that the number of farms in the UK that do that is down to approximately three—it is certainly in single figures.
My hon. Friend Mr. Vaizey advised Members that they should be ready to return to their pets. He talked about Grandjean the vet and about driving tail docking underground. He made a brave and amusing speech, and he will realise that there is great strength of feeling in the House on tail docking. It is important that we should have a balanced debate, however, and I appreciate what he tried to do. He also talked about the loopholes that allow animal sales on the internet. He then mentioned that he had visited the "Big Brother" house, which was a tremendous aside. However, his important point was about keeping primates as pets.
There have been some extremely helpful contributions to the debate today. The Conservatives agree with the aim of the Animal Welfare Bill, and we will co-operate to bring about its improvement and its enactment. Parts of the Bill are welcome, just as parts of it are most worrying. I suspect that the duty of care has not been absent from the statute book for the past 95 years by accident, but because of the difficulties that it presents. I am pleased that the Bill includes provisions for a duty of care to be placed on those responsible for animals, and I share the belief that we must safeguard the welfare of animals prior to an actual cruelty offence taking place.
As presently drafted, the clauses relating to the promotion of welfare and the duty of care are somewhat ambiguous. These definitions will take time and resources to clarify, unless amended. Anyone who has seen horses standing on wasteland without food, water or shelter, or seen dogs with their fur matted and bones sticking out, will, I hope, want to see these concepts enacted with crystal clear clarity now. This is not only because we value our animals but because we have the support of scientific evidence. We must ensure that responsibility accompanies the concept of a duty of care as it journeys towards becoming law. Consequently, there are matters that we need to resolve.
It is not just the concepts of welfare promotion and duty of care that require clarity and constructive improvement. The other crucial areas that need debate are: the role of the RSPCA; the missing regulations which are the codes of conduct that relate to the duty of care; the problems of devolution; the costs of implementation; and certain definitions that could be clearer. We are aware that, in its present form, the role of the RSPCA remains unclear. The Government should have done something about this after the Select Committee highlighted the issue in its report. The organisation's position as both a welfare promotion charity and a prosecutor creates a conflict of interest that needs to be resolved.
I welcome the extra powers that will be given to local authorities, but I am concerned that inadequate central Government funding could lead either to an ineffective service in some areas or to higher council tax bills.
I want to pick the hon. Gentleman up on his point about the RSPCA. As I understand it, the organisation has been given no new powers under the Bill. Indeed, its representatives have told me specifically that they do not want any. In those circumstances, what is the problem with the way in which the organisation is operating, given that its welfare advocacy and prosecution roles appear to have been working quite well recently?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. The RSPCA has asked not to be given, and has not been given, more powers. It has, however, been given a huge range of offences on which to prosecute. That is the difference, because the Bill will give it a huge opportunity to pursue prosecutions, while at the same time, it will have a vast range of animal welfare jobs that are totally separate from its prosecution role. Those conflicting roles are the problem, rather than what it has done in the past or the question of extra powers. I hope that the hon. Gentleman understands that. It is very difficult to go round raising money to fight court cases at the same time as trying to protect sanctuaries.
May I endorse the point made by my hon. Friend in answer to Norman Baker? I forgot to mention in my speech a letter that I had received from a constituent who makes precisely that point. There is a debate worth having about the dual role of the RSPCA in campaigning on animal welfare issues and in leading prosecutions.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The hon. Member for Lewes should not see this as an attack on the RSPCA, which is walking a very difficult tightrope.
I refer the hon. Gentleman to what the Select Committee said on the subject. I think that he will find that most helpful.
With regard to devolution, the handing down of secondary legislative powers to the Welsh Assembly might lead to different sets of regulations, codes of practice and licensing regimes operating for England and for Wales. That is unnecessary if we retain the principle of law being driven by scientific evidence. Why should we need different laws over the border if the science is irrefutable? That is not what devolution is about. If something is bad for the welfare of an animal or even cruel in England, surely it is just as bad and just as cruel anywhere else in the UK.
The codes of conduct are probably the most glaring absence from the Bill. Because a breach of the code of conduct means a possible prosecution for failing in the duty of care, those codes of conduct are essentially law. We should therefore debate on the Floor of the House the important issues touched on today such as electronic training collars, tail docking, circuses and bird fairs. We should also have free votes on them, and not leave them to be determined at some unspecified date in the future through statutory instruments put before a Committee heavily stacked with Government supporters whose selection was determined by the Whips Office.
Has my hon. Friend noticed a worrying aspect of this evening's debate, which is that most Members who have supported the structure of the Bill have done so because they believe that the outcome of debate on a statutory instrument will be that which they seek, whether the abolition of tail docking or pet fairs? Surely the principle of parliamentary democracy is that debate in a Statutory Instrument Committee might go one way or the other. Presuming that the debate will necessarily result in the abolition of such practices is a fundamental abnegation of parliamentary democracy.
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. We all know, from the number of letters that we receive, how much these matters concern our constituents. Even if we are going to say something unpopular, we should at least be able to debate it in a creative and constructive way. We all know that such Committees do not provide much opportunity to improve on the Government's intentions, which is a great shame.
It is also therefore a shame that such an important part of the Bill is taken on trust. Nobody, regardless of his or her position and prejudices, would want such contentious and divisive matters dealt with in this manner. Such matters of morality and conscience should be resolved on the Floor of the House. After all, we must remember that the duty of care applies to our legislative process as much as it does to our pets and animals.
A little over a year ago, I was a member of the Select Committee that gave the earlier draft of this Bill pre-legislative scrutiny, and I am saddened that the current version does not contain some of its important recommendations, including broadening the definition of "protected animal" to include octopuses and other cephalopods, and the separate offence of abandonment. The warning order or "statutory improvement notice", which gives the owner of an animal the chance to correct any care issues before a case needs to be formed against him or her, is an opportunity missed in the Bill. If we had seen the missing codes of conduct, which we are expected to agree on trust, the position would be clearer.
Needless cruelty is a concept that revolts all civilised people. I hope that the Minister will be willing to adapt the Bill if we can convince him of the necessity of doing so. I have drafted my amendments with the best will in the world. I look forward to discussing their merits, and I hope that the Minister will not adopt an entrenched position. I have noticed that Ministers are reluctant to introduce even their own amendments if a Bill has received pre-legislative scrutiny. I took part in that pre- legislative scrutiny, and I want this duty of care to become law as quickly as possible. Like my colleagues, I care passionately about animal welfare, and that is why I am delighted to be here to see this Bill take further shape.
I thank Members on both sides of the House for what has been an excellent debate. It was at all times educative, sometimes serious and sometimes entertaining. I have learned a lot, and Members have given me plenty of food for thought to take away to Committee, in which I hope that the debate between Miss Widdecombe and her hon. Friend Mr. Vaizey on tail docking might continue.
As Derek Conway said, and as one or two other Members pointed out, this is not a Christmas tree Bill as generally understood. It is not a Bill on which either non-governmental organisations or hon. Members are encouraged to hang their pet issue. Much of the debate about the Bill has centred on its nature and on whether it is too permissive in terms of enabling legislation. I will deal with that in a moment. It is important to emphasise, however, that although the debate has focused on a number of separate issues, the Bill is not primarily about banning practices; it is essentially about improving the welfare of animals. The Government have decided that prohibition is the best option in a few instances—pet sales to children, for instance, and mutilation—but the introduction of a duty of care and a welfare offence represents the real step forward.
I shall try to deal with the points that have been raised, but if I forget one or two Members I shall write to them. There was, for example, the issue of the definition of "animal". It was inevitable that there would be a debate about where the line should be drawn. There will always be those who want it to be drawn that little bit further to include cephalopods and crustaceans and those who are happy with the proposals as they stand, accepting the Government's belief that there is not yet enough scientific evidence to support their inclusion. What is important is that we have made clear that we are prepared to listen to Members' views in Committee, and will always be mindful of new evidence. According to strong advice that I am currently receiving, however, only one country in the world has included cephalopods in its animal welfare legislation.
The hon. Gentleman is right: New Zealand. Norway has included crustaceans, but not cephalopods.
There is still a great deal of scientific uncertainty, and as the Bill will introduce fairly wide powers, sanctions and punishment, as well as a burden of proof, we thought that we should act according to science rather than—in this instance—the precautionary principle. As I have said, however, we have power to extend the definition of "animal" by the appropriate national authority if we think it necessary.
Discussing suffering, the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald expressed a fear that the words "proportionate to the purpose" in clause 4(3)(d) might constitute a get-out. Let me try to reassure her. That is just one factor to which a court will be invited to have regard in determining whether suffering is unnecessary: it is not a get-out, or an absolute defence. Other factors—for example, whether suffering could be reasonably avoided—must be taken into account. There are instances in which we feel that the wording is necessary. For example, a police horse used for riot control may or may not be put in danger to protect the police. We are satisfied that the wording constitutes a significant strengthening of the current requirement. The status quo provides that beating in the context cited by the right hon. Lady is illegal only if unnecessary suffering can be proved; the Bill goes a great deal further.
A number of Members raised the issue of mental as opposed to physical suffering. We are satisfied that the definition in the Bill encompasses mental as well as physical suffering, but, again, I shall be happy to listen to Members' views in Committee.
Action can already be taken if such treatment is deemed abusive or cruel, but there will be no fundamental change in relation to horse racing.
The right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald, along with a number of other Members, stressed the importance of educating people in good care for animals. As my hon. Friend Ms Smith pointed out, codes of good practice will be issued relating to different types of animal, and will be made available at the point of purchase. They will form the basis of any subsequent action taken under the provision for a welfare offence.
I hope that the Bill will enable us to achieve a step change in education on good practice. Such education is not readily available in relation to many species, although Sweden, whose animal welfare legislation is similar to that in the Bill, has produced codes of good practice applying to the vast majority of pets that are available on the market. We hope to do the same.
On the fighting offence, Norman Baker expressed concern about our having removed from the Bill the reference to having equipment for use in, and keeping a place for, a fight. We got rid of that wording because we wanted a clear and simple Bill, in line with the Government's better regulation agenda. We are confident that the phrase that remains in the Bill—
"making, or carrying out, arrangements for an animal fight"— should, and will be, interpreted widely by the courts. It covers any arrangement relating to an animal fight, including keeping premises or equipment for fighting, planning a fight, transporting animals, and so forth. I hope that that reassures the hon. Gentleman.
Not entirely, but I am glad that the Minister has picked up on this point. It is perfectly possible for someone entirely unconnected with the arranging of a fight to appear at a fight and video it. That person, who has not been involved in making arrangements for an animal fight or in carrying them out, would not be covered by the new wording.
I take the hon. Gentleman's point, but there are all sorts of difficulties and complications associated with burden of proof when it comes to videoing fights. However, we can flesh out these issues and explore them in more detail in Committee.
Greg Mulholland spoke at some length about abandonment, but his argument is probably based on a misunderstanding. Abandoning an animal in a manner that is likely to cause suffering will continue to be illegal under this Bill. We have dropped specific reference to abandonment because it leads to all sorts of difficulties associated with definition. Other Members have raised the issue of keeping game—
In a second; let me first explain that our removing from the Bill specific reference to abandonment does not fundamentally change the law. Releasing game birds into the wild, or releasing fish into ornamental ponds, gives rise to great difficulties with the definition of abandonment. We have a much better way of dealing with abandonment—through the welfare and cruelty offences.
I do not doubt that the definition gives rise to certain issues, but does the Minister not agree that the abandonment of domestic pets is by nature a bad thing that automatically causes suffering? We are talking about a tautology—abandonment should be an offence in itself.
It is and it will be prosecuted as such under the Bill, but it does not need to be referred to specifically because it is covered by the welfare offence.
Those who sell pets over the internet as a business have to have a licence, just as pet shops do. Those who sell them privately do not, just as those who advertise in a local newspaper do not. We accept that there are particular issues connected with the internet, which is why we are proposing introducing a code of conduct. As with other internet issues, there are particular problems with enforcement, but again, we can examine this matter in more detail in Committee.
A number of Members expressed concern about the extent of the delegated powers. As I have said, the Bill tries to strike a balance between being flexible and allowing future Governments to change the law in the light of changing scientific evidence, mores and public attitudes, and not giving Governments so much power that they can ride roughshod over public, or even parliamentary, opinion. I remind Members that we have had similar secondary legislative powers in respect of farmed animals for 30 years and they have worked extremely well. They have enabled us to keep up to date with the latest advice, public attitudes and what we learn about how animals feel, without needing to come back to Parliament every time to seek primary legislation.
The general mood of this House was to support the Bill in that respect, while seeking assurances that we intend to come back to the House and deal with such matters through secondary legislation. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State gave that assurance in her opening remarks, and I repeat that a number of safeguards will be in place to ensure that new orders, regulations and codes will be subject to the appropriate level of scrutiny. We are committed to public consultation on any regulations or codes that we wish to introduce, before final approval by Parliament. The vast majority of them will be subject to the affirmative procedure.
I said that this was not a Christmas tree Bill on which hon. Members should try to hang baubles, but I shall deal with some of the baubles brought forward in the debate. I assure the House that all the matters to be dealt with in secondary legislation will be considered in full, both in Committee and when the regulations arising from them are debated. However, it may help hon. Members if I outline the Government's approach to some of the most contentious issues.
I turn first to the use of wild animals in circuses. Very few circuses in this country still use wild animals in acts. To our knowledge, only seven circuses in total use animals at all, while only three use wild ones. By the way, Ellie the Elephant has been retired: she is no longer used in an act, and is only photographed.
I was about to explain that, although Ellie is no longer used in acts, she has been in captivity all her life. Given the level of public interest in the case, we have looked at the matter very carefully, as I am sure that my hon. Friend will acknowledge. The expert veterinary advice that we have received is that, at her age, and given that she is used to her present environment, it would be more distressing for her if she were put into a different one. That will hold true as long as her welfare needs are met, and I assure my hon. Friend that she has been inspected.
Although the Bill does not set out to ban activities, the welfare offence that it introduces, and the requirement that the welfare needs of animals must be met, will in effect mean that many wild animal acts in circuses will no longer be possible. Again, that is a matter to which we will return in Committee.
Does the Minister agree that the Government are in danger of causing the greatest harm to animals through clause 29? If an animal's owner, or the person who is responsible for an animal, is convicted under the Bill, the court will be able to dispose of that animal. That might lead to its death: if, like Dr. Dolittle, we could ask the animal involved whether it would rather live with some abuse or die, I think that it might choose the former.
I shall come to some of the sanctions in a moment, but I do not agree at all with that analysis.
I listened extremely carefully to the views about tail docking expressed in the debate from hon. Members of all parties. I note that there was very little support for the status quo, but the Government are not persuaded about what is a very contentious issue. There is still a dispute about the science involved, and many people think that this is a matter of ethics. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said in her opening remarks, we will continue to listen very carefully to the views of the House, and we will take soundings about the issue in Committee.
I visited Crufts the year before last—I think that I was the first Minister to do so—and a number of owners of docked breeds told me that they felt that the time when tail docking was acceptable had passed. As I say, we will listen very carefully to what hon. Members have to say, and act accordingly.
On pet fairs, I am not sure that all hon. Members appreciate that the term can cover a wide range of gatherings. Some of them involve the sale of animals or birds, whereas others merely involve the exchange of expertise by enthusiasts who come together to share good practice. Therefore, there are some arguments—although they were not offered in the Chamber today—for the retention of pet fairs in some form. That is one reason why the Government are considering licensing rather than banning them. We have not seen any convincing evidence that it is impossible to meet the welfare needs of animals at pet fairs.
I believe that the Minister is wrong in that, and in my contribution I made it clear that I wanted to make a distinction between pet fairs and markets where birds and other animals are sold, and gatherings of enthusiasts who want to exhibit, and exchange information about, the birds or other creatures that they rear. I think that he will find that most of the animal welfare organisations that believe that there is evidence to justify banning pet fairs distinguish between them and gatherings of enthusiasts for the purposes of exhibition and the exchange of information.
Some may, but others would like a ban on all such gatherings. The Government are not convinced that that is justified, but we think that strict licensing requirements are the best way forward.
My hon. Friend made a point about the repeal or otherwise of the Pet Animals Act 1951. It is our intention to repeal section 2 of the Act, as amended, and to clarify its provisions with respect to pet fairs. I apologise that the final version of the Bill includes a power to repeal section 1 but has inadvertently omitted the repeal of section 2. We intend to address that through Government amendment at the appropriate stage.
We also want to ensure good provision of welfare for all racing greyhounds, whether they race under the National Greyhound Club racing rules or at independent tracks. We believe that that can be achieved through good regulation and, as several hon. Members have said, considerable progress has been made. However, we do not rule out regulation if we become convinced that self-regulation will not be effective. We should not forget that greyhounds, and all the other animals about which Members have expressed concern, will be immediately subject to the welfare provisions when the Bill is passed. The welfare of animals will not have to wait until the secondary legislation is made: animals will benefit immediately from the introduction of the welfare offence.
Several hon. Members raised concerns about snares, and I have to disappoint my hon. Friend Mr. Drew, who called for a complete ban. The Government are not convinced that that is justified at this stage. Gamekeepers and wildlife managers have a legitimate use for snares and if we were to ban them, other methods that are more cruel, more dangerous and less easy to control would be used. That is not a sensible way forward. The Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend Jim Knight, recently published a new code of conduct on snares which is a big step forward. The Bill will, of course, introduce a duty of care for animals trapped in a snare. It will be a requirement that animals trapped in snares will be despatched quickly and humanely or released. I hope that that goes some way to reassure my hon. Friend.
The issue of primates as pets is not dealt with directly in the Bill, although the remarks I made about circuses apply equally to primates. The courts, the RSPCA and others could well make the argument that it is not possible to meet the welfare needs of a primate in certain conditions. In fact, primates are really only suitable for imports by zoos, scientific institutions or specialist keepers. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary, who is responsible for wildlife imports, has recently gone out to public consultation on proposals to prohibit the keeping of certain CITES-listed species. That is essentially a conservation measure, but the Government are considering whether it would be appropriate to use those powers to restrict the keeping of primates as pets.
Several hon. Members raised the issue of pheasants, game rearing in general and the use of battery cages for pheasants. We share people's concern. It does seem anomalous that battery cages for chickens have been banned and are being phased out in the European Union but we still have similar devices for the rearing of pheasants. It is certainly an issue that we will address through codes of conduct and regulation in due course.
They are regarded as protected animals and will be covered by the new Bill, not as farm animals.
I know that there is much public support, including from many animal welfare organisations, for an immediate ban on electric training aids and shock collars, but some argue strongly that electric shock collars can be useful training mechanisms in the last resort. They also argue that the alternative is euthanasia for the animal which, I hope, most hon. Members would not support. We are keen to conduct more research on the issue, because there is an absence of good research on electric shock collars. We are trying to get that research underway as quickly as possible and we have the power to address the issue through regulation-making powers.
Does the Minister acknowledge that there is a difference between electric shock collars and electric fences, which define the limits in which a dog may travel? They are quite different; electric shock collars surprise the dog, the fence is something that they can get used to and expect.
I am not quite sure what point the hon. Gentleman is making, but of course I accept that there is a difference.
Several Members raised the issue of tethering. Under the Bill, there is no intention to ban tethering, which can be an acceptable short-term method of animal control, but we expect to introduce a code on tethering, outlining best practice to ensure good welfare, in the first tranche of regulations in 2006 or 2007.
The Bill has been the result of long gestation—of two elephants, as my hon. Friend Nia Griffith pointed out—and careful deliberation. The Government have listened carefully to all those with an interest in animal welfare and we believe that the Bill we have produced is in tune with the views of the public. I am pleased that it appears to enjoy strong cross-party support in the House. It places a new responsibility on animal keepers and owners, without intruding too much into the lives of the vast majority who already provide good care for their pets.
Will the Minister consider issuing written warnings before prosecution for failures under the duty of care? Otherwise, there could be a huge escalation in prosecutions.
There is nothing to prevent the issuing of written warnings. We are simply keen not to dictate to the RSPCA and others that they should take that course. In a serious case, they may want to move straight to prosecution, but nothing in the Bill prevents the issuing of a written warning. In fact, the whole ethos of the Bill is to try in the long run to avoid so many prosecutions, to prevent cruelty in the first place and to reduce costs to the courts, the RSPCA and the taxpayer, as well as improving animal welfare.
The Bill provides greater protection for animals while ensuring that enforcement authorities are better able to enforce welfare standards. It is ambitious but proportionate, and I commend it to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read a Second time.